In a departure from its long-running contention that bisphenol A is safe, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced it now has “some concern” about possible health effects on fetuses and young children, and it supports actions to remove the plastic-making compound from baby bottles.
The FDA statement follows steps taken by Health Canada two years ago to designate BPA, as the chemical is also known, as toxic and ban it from infant bottles.
Although the U.S. agency did not go as far as Canadian health authorities, it did say recent studies have raised the possibility that BPA, a synthetic chemical able to mimic the hormone estrogen, might be having effects on the brain, behaviour and prostate gland of humans during fetal development and early childhood.
As recently as August, 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, the FDA issued a draft report saying it had no concerns at all about the BPA, used in thousands of products including almost all food and beverage cans, dental sealants and polycarbonate bottles.
But new FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the agency has changed its position after an evaluation by scientists at the U.S. government’s National Toxicology Program later in 2008 raised the possibility that early life exposures might be dangerous.
“Our safety assessment of BPA is ongoing. At this time the agency is informing the public that we share the perspective of the National Toxicology Program of some concern for the health effects of BPA,” Dr. Hamburg told a telephone news conference.
With the safety of BPA uncertain, the FDA head recommended as a precaution some “reasonable steps to help reduce human exposure.”
Among them, it is supporting efforts of baby-bottle makers to stop using the chemical. The agency is also backing the canning industry’s efforts to remove it from infant formula containers, and replace or minimize BPA in other food can linings.
The agency hasn’t reached a final conclusion about the hazards, which is awaiting the results of further research that will be done over the next 18 to 24 months.
As part of this evaluation, the U.S. government is spending $30-million (U.S.) to try to assess whether the chemical is linked to the development of breast, prostate and uterine cancers, obesity, diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease, among other conditions. It has selected these medical problems for study because previous animal research suggested possible connections to BPA.
For parents worried about their children ingesting the compound, the government recommended throwing away any polycarbonate plastic bottles that are scratched, and avoiding exposing the containers to hot temperatures, two factors that may cause more BPA to leak into food.
The FDA announcement is a major change, according to environmentalists who have been lobbying to have the chemical banned in North American from any uses that would allow it to get into food, which is believed to be the major route of human exposure.
“The FDA has never, ever admitted before that it is has any concerns whatsoever,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group. He said the U.S. action also vindicates Health Canada’s earlier assessment and “will dramatically accelerate the market’s move away from this chemical.”
The American Chemistry Council, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group for makers of the compound, said the U.S. government position “confirms that exposure to BPA in food contact products has not been proven harmful to children or adults.” The group said BPA is safe and it is “disappointed that some of the recommendations are likely to worry consumers and are not well-founded.”
Although both the FDA and Health Canada have attributed their worry about the chemical to its possible effects during early life, new research suggests BPA could be harming adults too.
Earlier this week, for instance, a new peer-reviewed study linked the chemical to a 45-per-cent increased risk of heart disease, among people in the U.S. who had higher-than-average exposures. And late last year, another paper connected it to erectile dysfunction in factory workers who use it in making products.