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For Parents, Bottle Safety Still Unclear
Plastic's Harm Isn't Proven, But Toy Recalls Stir Fears

By Renae Merle and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The hot topic of conversation among the mothers at Melissa Bazarian's play group in Arlington this weekend wasn't baby strollers, diapers or first words but baby bottles: clear or cloudy?

Clear bottles are likely to include bisphenol A and have for decades. Periodically, however, environmental and consumer groups have questioned the chemical's safety. Those questions are arising again, even though the Food and Drug Administration says not to worry and the plastic industry stresses the chemical's many years of use.

But in a year when Thomas and Friends trains and toy cars have turned on them because of lead-paint concerns, parents are sensitive to everything their little ones touch.

Although no conclusive scientific evidence exists that bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in plastics, is harmful to children, last month a panel of the National Institutes of Health said exposure to the chemical raises "some concerns" for children. At the same time, authors of "Baby Bargains" parenting books have recommended switching to bisphenol-free bottles, identified by their opaqueness.

Such talk has prompted Maryland Delegate James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) to plan to revive in the state legislature a bill that would ban the sale of products meant for children under 6 that contain the chemical, including baby bottles. "This is the third year, and the third year is the charm," he said.

The issue is whether the chemical, used to make polycarbonate products, could leach out of baby bottles and harm young children. (Bottle nipples are not involved.) Bisphenol A, known as BPA, has been found to cause cancer and reproductive damage in some animals.

Still, the discussions are frustrating parents already nervous because of reports of safety problems with products from China, the source of 80 percent of toys bought in the United States. Millions of toys tainted with lead-based paint, including toy trains and Batman action figures, have been recalled.

"I'm so tired of yet another thing that we have to watch out for," said Bazarian, whose son is 9 months old. "It just infuriates me that first of all we are exposed to these chemicals. But secondly that we're trying so hard to do our best, and it's just one more thing that pops up that's out of our control."

Bazarian threw out her old bottles and ordered BPA-free plastic ones, expected to arrive any day.

"I'd rather be a little careful and pay a few extra dollars for some new bottles than have a potential harmful issue," she said.

Bazarian is not alone. Concern over BPA has spurred demand for alternatives to plastic bottles. Evenflo has had an increase in sales of glass bottles. Last week, Buy Buy Baby launched a BPA-free section on its Web site.

At Born Free, which sells BPA-free bottles online and in stores, President Ron Vigdor said sales have jumped 75 to 100 percent over the past month.

"The fact that there is a dispute within the scientific community should make cautious parents concerned," said Alex Fidis, an attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Plastic manufacturers have mounted a counter-campaign to defuse concern about the compound. At BabyBottles.org, a site sponsored by plasticmakers, including the American Chemistry Council, parents are told that the bottles are safe.

"We're not ignoring the science at all," said Steve Hentges, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council. "The science has been examined by government and scientific bodies. Every one of them supports the conclusion that it is not a risk to human health."

Questions about bisphenol A have emerged periodically for nearly the past 10 years. Most recently, the Environment California Research and Policy Center, an advocacy group, issued a report in February titled "Toxic Baby Bottles," which asserted that low doses of bisphenol A can cause, among other things, hyperactivity.

A 38-member scientific panel published a "consensus statement" in the journal Reproductive Toxicology recently that said BPA had become a chemical of "high concern." The American Chemistry Council assailed that panel for including scientists known to be critical of BPA.

The Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction at NIH found that there was "some concern" that exposure to BPA could have neural and behavioral effects on children and "minimal concern" that exposure could cause the acceleration of puberty. That panel's initial research was compiled by Alexandria-based Sciences International, which was later fired after NIH found that the company had been simultaneously working for the chemical industry, raising concerns among some environmental groups that such work could have influenced the conclusions.

The FDA is reviewing both groups' results, said Mitchell Cheeseman, deputy director of the Office of Food Additive Safety. "We do not have a reason at this point to change our opinion that bisphenol A is safe," he said. But "we're looking at the information that came out of those two meetings."

The most recent report prompted Alan and Denise Fields, authors of "Baby Bargains" and "Baby 411," to repeal their recommendation of Avent Natural Feeding and Dr. Brown's Natural Flow bottles, two of the most popular on the market.

"We take our cues from the FDA, and all of our products are FDA-approved," said Shannon Jenest, senior manager of public relations for Philips Avent. Jenest said the company uses polycarbonate plastic for all of its bottles because of its high quality and durability.

Handi-Craft, which manufactures Dr. Brown's products, declined to comment, citing an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in California.

The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of children's goods, said it saw no reason to condemn the compound. "I think we're scaring parents unnecessarily," said Amy Chezem, spokeswoman for the group.

It is all information-overload for some parents. "It just still doesn't seem like the science is there yet," said Greg Allen, author of the Daddy Types blog. "Parents have a lot to worry about and react to anyway."

Cautioning against "headline-parenting," he said, "it's a very reactive way to parent . . .that is ultimately not good for a parent or a kid."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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