AUGUSTA, Maine — A state environmental board Thursday started weighing whether manufacturers would have access to affordable packaging alternatives if Maine extended its ban on the chemical bisphenol A to packaging used for infant formula and baby and toddler foods.
The state Board of Environmental Protection’s first, in-depth public deliberations on extending the ban on the chemical, commonly known as BPA, followed a daylong hearing in September where advocates for the ban argued that the state should take whatever action it can to limit children’s exposure to BPA, and that safer packaging alternatives are widely available and affordable.
Opponents, including representatives of chemical and packaging manufacturers, countered that the ban was unnecessary. Most BPA disappears during the manufacturing process, they said, citing a federal Food and Drug Administration opinion that raises some concerns about BPA’s safety, but points to uncertainty in scientific research about the risks of exposure to BPA.
The Board of Environmental Protection is considering an extension of the BPA ban after advocates in June filed a citizens’ petition to expand the scope of the ban. To recommend that the Legislature extend the ban, the seven-member board needs to find that children are exposed to BPA in the food products for which it’s considering a ban and that there are safer and affordable BPA alternatives.
BPA is a plastic additive found in hundreds of products ranging from water bottles to CDs to receipt paper, and it’s an endocrine disruptor that some studies have linked to cancer, learning disabilities, infertility and other health problems. The chemical is found commonly in infant formula cans, baby bottles and baby food jar lids, and is used to prevent corrosion of metal packaging and protect food from contamination.
Board of Environmental Protection members Thursday discussed the findings of an outside analysis prepared for the state examining whether BPA alternatives are available. The report, prepared by the firm TechLaw, concluded that there’s no perfect chemical substitute for BPA, but that different types of packaging that don’t use BPA are available.
While the report identified a range of packaging alternatives, it didn’t include detailed information on their cost to consumers.
“We need to know that,” said Tom Eastler, a Board of Environmental Protection member from Farmington. “Otherwise, we can’t say whether that’s an acceptable alternative.”
Other board members noted that the report’s conclusions were limited in scope. The analysis devoted much of its attention to determining whether there’s a perfect chemical substitute for BPA to be used in the same packaging.
“While it’s certainly interesting information, it doesn’t get to what’s, for me, the heart of the discussion, which is available alternatives that are safe for the packaging of this product,” said Susan Lessard, the town manager in Hampden and a Board of Environmental Protection member. “There’s no chemical that replaces, but the question is, does there need to be if there are other alternatives for packaging?”
State Toxicologist Andrew Smith told board members that children are typically exposed to BPA through infant formula and baby and toddler food packaging. What’s uncertain, he said, is the level of exposure at which BPA begins to adversely affect children.
Researchers are working to answer that question, Smith said. But, “it’s an unsettled question. You’re having to make your decision based on that unsettled question.
“Really, the question in my mind, is there a potential for significant exposure reduction?” Smith said. “If there’s a significant exposure reduction, then there’s something to gain.”
But the Board of Environmental Protection’s charge in deciding whether to extend the state’s BPA ban is much narrower, said Lessard.
“‘Is there exposure?’ is the question, and ‘yes’ is the answer,” she said.
Maine already bans BPA from certain children’s products, including baby bottles and sippy cups, as a result of the 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act that designated BPA a “priority chemical.” The petitioners seeking the expanded ban on the chemical — who included more than 800 Maine residents and a coalition of environmental groups — argued that the board has the authority to extend the BPA ban under that 2008 law.
The Board of Environmental Protection’s discussion Thursday was a step toward the board developing a recommendation to the Legislature on extending the BPA ban. Lawmakers will have the final say on the matter, and an expanded ban would take effect in September at the earliest.