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The Chemical Marketplace: Revisiting BPA and PFOA

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More than 80,000 chemicals are produced, used, and present in the United States. This is one of their stories.

New findings, new concerns about two common chemicals: BPA and PFOA.

BPA, Babies, Bottles and Such

Of all the persistent environmental contaminants running amok in the chemical marketplace, BPA or bisphenol A has to be one of the more notorious. (I've written about it several times: here, here, and here.) Like so many chemicals that appear in consumer products it's been linked to a whole host of negative health effects -- from problems with the brain and the prostate to harmful effects on reproductive systems and childhood development to heart disease. How significant these effects are from the typical dosages people are exposed to remains uncertain, and so they remain in the marketplace in things we buy and when we buy.

The thing that has made BPA so controversial is the fact that it is used in plastic containers and plastic bottles and the linings of tin cans -- in other words it comes into direct contact with the food we ingest and the beverages we imbibe. But lo and behold there has been some good news on that front.

BPA Is Not in Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups

Perhaps the greatest uproar over BPA has been over the fact that it has been an ingredient in the plastics used in baby bottles and sippy cups. It's one thing to expose adults to a chemical like BPA but possibly far more dangerous to expose such a chemical to babies whose bodies are rapidly growing and developing. Perhaps that concern has now been addressed.

For years there has been a movement afoot in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and such. But the American Chemical Council (an industry group that represents companies in the business of chemistry, including those that produce and use BPA) has fought tooth and nail against any ban. For example, according to the New York Times, the trade group has spent more than $9.4 million since 2005 lobbying California lawmakers to block passage of a bill that would ban BPA in baby bottles. And in 2010, the group's lobbying reportedly kept a ban on children's drink containers' containing BPA out of the Food Safety Modernization Act. 

But last October the council made a surprising about-face. It filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration requesting that "food additive regulations be amended to no longer provide for the use of polycarbonate (PC) resins (i.e., PBA) in infant feeding bottles and spill-proof cups because these uses have been abandoned." Translated from legalese to plain English: the trade group asked the FDA to go ahead and ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Kind of surprising? Not really, says the American Chemical Council, who stated in a press release that the ban is really a no-brainer because "manufacturers of baby bottles and sippy cups announced several years ago that... they had stopped using BPA in these products." If that were the case one would have thought the group wouldn't have fought so hard to stop a ban, but maybe they just wanted to keep their options open.

In a classic CYA move, the trade group claimed that the decision to keep BPA out of baby bottles and sippy cups was in response to "consumer preference" and not safety concerns. On the contrary, the industry trade group maintains that BPA is safe for food products, but that the action was warranted because of the "confusion about whether BPA is used in baby bottles and sippy cups has become an unnecessary distraction to consumers, legislators and state regulators."

The move is limited to just baby bottles and sippy cups and so won't negate the need to search out other BPA-free food-related products. (More here.) The FDA'a 60-day public comment period on the requested revisions to BPA regulation opened  on February 17; you can submit a comment by April 17, 2012.

BPA and Obesity

But all is not rosy on the BPA front.

A new study on the ubiquitous chemical (see here, here and here) published in the journal PLoS ONE by Sergi Soriano of the Miguel Hernandez University in Spain and colleagues finds that in the presence of low concentrations of BPA, human cells released almost twice as much insulin as is needed to break down food.

This a concern because over time, high levels of insulin can lead to insulin resistance as well as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Read more on this here.

PFOA -- Another Hormone-Disrupting Persistent Pollutant Linked to Obesity

PFOA is short for perfluorooctanoic acid. It's a concern for many consumers, especially the home-movie addicts among us, because it is used in the bags for microwave popcorn.

PFOA belongs to a class of perfluorinated compounds that are used in a wide variety of products --- everything from coatings for fabrics, furniture and carpets to cookware and food packaging. And, because they have the nasty characteristic of persisting in the environment, you can find the stuff hanging out just about everywhere. The two most common perfluorinated compounds are PFOA and perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS), both of which have been linked to a variety of health risks including cancer, liver disease, developmental problems and thyroid disease.

Now there's another PFOA risk we need to worry about. A study by Thorhallur Halldorsson of the University of Iceland and colleagues appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that prenatal exposure to PFOA is linked with obesity in daughters. (No effect was found for sons.) Girls born to mothers with the highest levels of PFOA during pregnancy were three times more likely to be obese at age 20 than those born to mothers with the lowest levels. The link may have to do with how PFOA interacts with hormones linked to obesity. More info here.

PFOA and Vaccine Immunity

But that's not all. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and colleagues found that children with elevated exposures to PFOA and PFOS had a reduced immune response to childhood vaccines at ages 5 and 7 years -- raising concerns that those with the highest levels would have insufficient immune response to protect against disease. More details here.

So the good news is that it may now be safe to let your babies and toddlers drink from plastic bottles and sippy cups (safe at least when it comes to BPA). But that safety may drain away if it's freshly popped microwave popcorn they like to wash down with their beverage of choice.

But don't despair -- believe it or not, it's possible to make popcorn in the microwave without using store-bought microwave popcorn bags. I like to do mine by placing a covered glass bowl loaded with a layer of popcorn moistened by a dollop of cooking oil into the microwave for about six minutes on high. If you try this, be careful taking the bowl out of the microwave -- it can be very hot. Add salt, butter, and get ready for a crunchy treat sans PFOA!

Read about more chemicals in everyday products in our Chemical Marketplace series.

Crossposted with The Green Grok.

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