Safety of water & baby bottles questioned

April 16, 2008 10:38:10 AM PDT
Action News Special Report Follow-up: A new evaluation shows some lingering concern about safety of the widely-used chemical BPA in plastics.

Reusable plastic water bottles may be good for the environment, but a new study shows they might be bad for your health.

It's an issue Action News irst explored in May 2005 - does bisphenol A, also known as BPA, leach out of plastic bottles, and coatings on food containers, and does it cause health problems?

A chemical evaluation released by the Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program says it is a possibility.

BPA is widely used, in plastic water bottles, baby bottles and the lining of many food, drink and baby formula cans. Some studies say it could lead to prostate cancer, breast cancer and early-onset puberty.

The evaluation doesn't reverse any opinions about the chemical but simply raises new concerns.

The draft brief found some worry that exposure to the chemical bisphenol A, known as BPA, could have neural and behavioral effects on fetuses, infants and children at existing exposure levels.

"The possibility that bisphenol A may alter human development cannot be dismissed," the evaluation noted.

Indeed, the study failed to put to rest long-standing worries about whether the widely used chemical is safe, and ensures that scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration's decision to approve BPA will continue. While some have argued the chemical is associated with health risks, the FDA and industry experts have stood by their controversial conclusion that the chemical is not harmful.

The chemical helps make plastic tough and shatter-resistant; the plastic is used in food and drink containers, bike helmets, dental sealants and more.

At the American Chemistry Council, Steve Hentges, executive director of the polycarbonate/BPA global group, said today that there's still no evidence of serious health risks or need to remove BPA from the market. This evaluation echoes many of the already published findings about BPA, Hentges said.

"In every case, what they point out is that the existing data provide only limited evidence for those health effects," he said. "It suggests additional research is needed in some areas, and we don't disagree with that at all.

"But the data as it currently stands does not indicate that there is a significant risk associated with bisphenol A."

But others said Tuesday that the evaluation is a critical development.

Dr. Jose Russo, a researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center, says BPA, mimics the sex hormone estrogen. In Dr. Russo's lab, BPA altered the genes in the breast glands of female rats, causing cells to grow rapidly. He wonders whether that be happening in people, possibly fueling breast cancer?

Dr. Russo is also concerned BPA could be causing young girls to go through puberty earlier and earlier. His tests on blood samples from girls show, "Girls with precocious puberty have almost 4 times higher concentration in their blood of this compound."

Independent scientists say BPA leaches out faster the more a plastic is scratched, and heated.

Concern about BPA is not confined to the United States. Canada has just officially labeled BPA as dangerous, according to today's Globe and Mail, which could prompt a broad ban or restrictions.

In the United States, caregivers, medical experts and lawmakers alike have questioned the FDA's decision to approve the chemical, contending that the agency made the wrong call.

While the FDA points to two studies showing BPA is safe, several congressional Democrats charge that the research on which the FDA relied was funded by the American Plastics Council.

Since then, lawmakers have been eager to find out whether the FDA is too close for comfort with the industry it regulates at the expense of public health.

"These findings of BPA's dangers are based on the totality of research around this chemical," said Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a Tuesday statement. "These assessments fly in the face of the FDA's determination that BPA is safe."

The congressman wrote a letter to FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach April 4, asking him to provide more information about the decision by April 22.

"Federal regulatory panels do not want to acknowledge the reality that who pays for science makes a difference," charged Frederick Vom Saal, a reproductive biologist and endocrinologist at the University of Missouri who first studied BPA as a sex hormone.

Vom Saal hopes that today's evaluation will prompt the FDA to look more closely at the science that shows BPA could be harmful. "What we're beginning to see is a convergence of opinions on this from various agencies," he said.

New mothers like Sarah Janssen believe it's best to limit exposure to BPA. Janssen, a science fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, actively avoided eating canned food and drinking canned sodas while pregnant to limit her exposure to the chemical often found in the products' linings. She also makes sure to use baby bottles, dishes and bowls that don't contain the chemical for her 8-month-old daughter.

"Although all those exposures by themselves are small, they add up in a day's time," Janssen said. "My evaluation of the research has really made me want to limit her exposure, and my exposure when I was pregnant, to this chemical."

"It affects babies a lot more than it would adults," said Ron Vigdor, CEO of Born Free, a company that manufactures BPA-free baby bottles. "I think that parents frankly are scared. Some of the parents are horrified at finding out that baby products could be leaching products and hurting their children."

Chemical evaluations like the one released this week are used to guide state and federal regulators in setting standards for exposure to the chemical, as well as for cleanup procedures.

The chemical evaluation of BPA is a draft open for public comment. The report will be reviewed by other scientists at a meeting in North Carolina this June.

ABC News' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.