What’s the concern about BPA in formula cans and plastic baby bottles?
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that was used in polycarbonate plastic products and epoxy resin-based food can liners for decades to harden plastic, keep bacteria out of food, and prevent rust. Although there’s little scientific data on the effects of BPA on humans, results from animal studies suggest that it’s unsafe.
Today, plastic baby bottles manufactured by American companies no longer contain BPA. That’s because in 2009 the six major manufacturers of baby bottles and sippy cups – representing more than 90 percent of the U.S. market – stopped making their products with BPA. And in 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA in the manufacture of all baby bottles and sippy cups.
BPA also used to be present in infant formula packaging, but not anymore: By the time the FDA banned the use of BPA in formula packaging in 2013, manufacturers had already stopped using it.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says human exposure to BPA has dropped significantly in recent years, but some health and environmental groups believe more needs to be done to get BPA out of consumer products because a wide range of products – such as food storage containers, plastic tableware, and food packaging – are still manufactured with BPA.
How does BPA get into my baby’s food?
Problems arise when the chemical leaches out of the bottle or container into the liquid or food that’s in contact with the plastic. If your baby drinks or eats from a polycarbonate container, it’s possible that he’s also getting a small dose of BPA.
The amount that leaches depends mostly on whether the container is heated (in the dishwasher or microwave, for example) and the temperature of the liquid or food. High temperatures lead to the release of more BPA.
Although the FDA has banned BPA from baby bottles, sippy cups, and formula packaging, the agency asserts that other polycarbonate products are safe and that the BPA levels found in humans are very low. However, some medical experts, scientists, and environmental experts disagree.
According to the Environmental Working Group, studies that show the harmful health effects of BPA outnumber studies that don’t by a margin of 9 to 1. Also, dozens of state and national environmental health organizations in the United States and Canada have called for a moratorium on the use of BPA in food and beverage containers. Many believe that the evidence is strong enough for parents to consider taking steps to reduce their infant’s exposure to BPA when possible.
How is BPA harmful?
Your body’s endocrine system is made up of glands that release hormones to regulate growth, metabolism, and sexual development and function. When consumed, BPA mimics the hormone estrogen (becomes “estrogenic”) and disrupts the natural balance of your endocrine system.
Animal studies show that low levels of BPA affect the hormones that control the development of the brain, the reproductive system, and the immune system. In laboratory rats, exposure to BPA has been linked to an increased risk of some cancers, decreased sperm counts and reduced fertility, and hyperactivity. BPA exposure has also been linked to obesity, diabetes, and the early onset of puberty.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency brought together experts who reviewed 700 published studies on BPA. They found that the BPA levels in humans are higher than the levels causing adverse effects in animal studies.
Are BPA-free plastics safe?
The NIH says parents can safely use baby bottles identified as “BPA-free.” However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents use alternatives to plastic, when possible, because some studies suggest that harmful chemicals leach from any type of plastic – even those that don’t contain BPA.
A 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed 500 plastic products used to contain food, including baby bottles, and found that almost all of them leached estrogen-like chemicals that disrupt hormone activity – in some cases, the BPA-free products released chemicals that were more disruptive than the products containing BPA.
Environmental and health experts agree that BPA isn’t the only chemical to be concerned about. A single piece of plastic may contain five to 30 chemicals, and a plastic item with multiple parts (like a baby bottle) may contain more than 100. Even a thin sheet of plastic wrap can leach chemicals into your food when heated in the microwave.
“Plastic food containers and packaging contain dozens of ingredients – many having estrogenic effects,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with the Environmental Working Group. “BPA is one of the most potent additives. It’s a good idea for parents to avoid polycarbonate plastic, which leaches BPA, and take precautions with all plastic food containers.”
Lunder says it’s important to avoid putting plastic in the oven or microwave because heated plastic leaches estrogenic compounds. If you prepare baby formula with boiled water, she recommends cooling it before pouring it into your baby’s bottle or sippy cup.
Is there BPA in other products?
Yes. BPA turns up in many other plastic items, such as toys, dental sealants, and water bottles. It’s also found in the can liners of many canned goods.
Among other items, BPA is also found in electronics, eyeglass lenses, medical equipment, and the coating of cash register receipts, but scientists believe oral exposure is the primary concern for infants right now.
How can I protect my baby?
“While all of us and our children are regularly exposed to low levels of myriad chemicals, including BPA, there are some measures we can take to avoid at least some of these exposures,” says Shanna Swan, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Icahn School of Medicine in New York City. “A good general principle is to avoid unnecessary exposures to chemicals in your food and water and to choose options that convey lower exposure whenever possible.”
If you’re concerned about your baby’s exposure to BPA and other chemicals, baby bottles are an important source to address. Here are some concrete things you can do:
- Breastfeed your baby if possible. This will help you to avoid chemicals in bottles. If you cannot breastfeed, follow the guidelines below for choosing bottles.
- If you bottle-feed your baby, avoid plastic bottles and choose bottles made of glass or stainless steel.
- If you choose to use plastic bottles, the AAP recommends you avoid those with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7. For safe cleaning, use a nonabrasive sponge or bottle brush, scrub with warm, soapy water, and rinse well.
- To warm a plastic bottle with formula or breast milk, place it in a bowl of warm water or run it under warm water.
- Get rid of baby bottles and sippy cups that turn cloudy or are scratched or cracked. Worn bottles may leach chemicals more easily.
How can I protect my family?
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your family’s exposure to BPA and other chemicals:
- Avoid plastic containers and food packaging.
- Don’t put plastic dishware or food storage containers in the microwave or dishwasher, and don’t wash them with harsh detergents. High heat and abrasive cleansers can damage the plastic, which will make it leach more.
- Use a paper towel or a ceramic plate instead of plastic wrap to cover food you heat in the microwave.
- When buying plastic containers and food packaging such as plastic wrap, check the bottom of the containers and avoid items with the following recycling codes: 3 (may contain phthalates), 6 (may contain the neurotoxin styrene), and 7 (may contain BPA) unless labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”
- Eat food from a variety of sources so you don’t rely on canned goods. (Most canned goods have a BPA liner.)
For more guidelines, Swan suggests checking the Environmental Working Group website.
Is anything being done about this?
Congress is currently evaluating whether BPA should be regulated. Meanwhile, states aren’t waiting for word from Congress: As of 2015, 13 states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws banning the sale of children’s products containing BPA such as baby bottles, cups, food containers, and other items.
“Let your representative know that you want to be informed about BPA and other additives in the products you and your family are exposed to,” says Swan. “Foods, food containers, and personal care products should be labeled as to their contents.”
You can tell the government you want more testing and tighter regulation of potentially harmful chemicals as well as labels that enable you to identify hazardous ingredients and make informed purchasing decisions. And call for research on alternatives to BPA-lined cans.
The League of Women Voter’s website can put you in touch with your federal and state elected officials. And you can check the National Conference of State Legislatures to see where your state stands on BPA legislation.