The Food and Drug Administration has reversed its position on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastic bottles, soda cans, food containers and thousands of consumer goods, saying it has concerns about health risks.
WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration has reversed its position on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastic bottles, soda cans, food containers and thousands of consumer goods, saying it has concerns about health risks.
Growing scientific evidence has linked the chemical to a range of problems, from cancer to sexual dysfunction to heart disease. Federal officials said they are particularly concerned about BPA’s effect on the development of fetuses, infants and young children.
“We have some concern, which leads us to recommend reasonable steps the public can take to reduce exposure to BPA,” Joshua Sharfstein, FDA’s deputy commissioner, said Friday. They include discarding scratched baby bottles and infant feeding cups and not putting very hot liquid into bottles containing BPA while preparing them for a child.
The drug agency also recommended that mothers breast feed their infants for at least 12 months; liquid formula contains traces of BPA.
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Regulators stopped short of banning the compound or requiring manufacturers to label products containing BPA, saying current data are not clear enough to support a legal crackdown.
Sharfstein said the agency is conducting “targeted” studies of BPA, part of a two-year, $30 million effort to answer key questions about the chemical that will help determine what action, if any, is necessary to protect public health.
BPA, used to harden plastics, is so prevalent that more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has traces of it in its urine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers have found that BPA leaches from containers into food and beverages, even at cold temperatures.
The FDA’s announcement came after extensive talks between federal agencies and the Obama administration.
One administration official privy to the talks said the FDA was in a quandary. “They have new evidence that makes them worried, but they don’t have enough proof to justify pulling the stuff, so what do you do?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The FDA had long maintained that BPA is safe, relying largely on two studies paid for by the chemical industry. The agency was faulted by its own panel of independent science advisers in 2008, who said its position on BPA was flawed because it ignored more than 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories that raised health concerns about BPA.
Recent data found health effects even at low doses of BPA, lower than the levels considered safe by the FDA.
The chemical industry, which produces more than 6 billion tons of BPA annually and has been fighting restrictions on its use, said Friday’s announcement was good news because the agency did not tell people to stop using products containing the chemical. “The science continues to support the safety of BPA,” said Steven Hentges of the American Chemistry Council.
BPA was discovered to be a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. By the 1950s, chemists found BPA could be used to make polycarbonate plastics, giving them a “shatterproof” quality, and the uses for the chemical exploded.
But in the past decade, consumers have placed increasing pressure on manufacturers and retailers to migrate away from BPA. In 2008, Babies R Us and other major retailers told suppliers they would no longer stock baby bottles made with BPA.
Last year, the six largest manufacturers of baby bottles announced they would voluntarily stop selling bottles made with BPA to U.S. consumers.
But BPA remains in the epoxy linings of most canned goods, including baby formula. Research has shown that it leaches from the linings into liquid formula but not powdered formula.
Environmental groups, public-health advocates and consumer organizations applauded the FDA for recognizing concern about BPA, but some said the agency didn’t go far enough.
“It’s really a shame after all of the studies out there, that they didn’t do anything to protect the public health,” said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union. “How many pieces of evidence do we need before we have enough to act?”
Canada declared BPA a toxin and banned it from baby bottles in 2008. Similar restrictions have taken root in Chicago, Minnesota, Connecticut and Suffolk County in New York. In Congress, a bill has been filed that would block BPA from all food and drink packaging.
As it awaits additional research results, the FDA plans to change the way it classifies BPA so it can exercise tighter controls over the chemical, Sharfstein said. Currently, BPA is approved as a “food additive,” which means manufacturers are not required to tell the government which products contain BPA and in what amounts.
The agency wants to reclassify it as a “food-contact material,” which would require greater disclosure from manufacturers and would allow the FDA to take fast action if it determined the material posed a health risk.