Ask any new parent about their child's first steps. It's as if they took a walk on the moon instead of toddling from the sofa to the ottoman.
In the past month, three states recently took critical first steps forward in the journey to get toxic chemicals out of our families' lives by banning the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups.
These are victories that should certainly be celebrated. But they should also be recognized for what they are: crucial baby steps in a much longer journey - one that will help keep a toxic substance that has been linked to health effects in children and adults from contaminating our food and beverages, and the first steps in the even longer journey toward getting toxic chemicals out of our families' lives.
BPA has been shown to leach into the food or beverage stored in containers made or lined with the chemical. It doesn't take long for that leaching to occur - a study last year from the Harvard School of Medicine had college students drink cold beverages from brand new, non-scratched, not heated water bottles, and the concentration of BPA in their urine increased by two thirds over the course of one week.
BPA is most commonly used to make polycarbonate plastic found in products that include baby bottles, water bottles, and reusable food containers. In 1997, 95 percent of all baby bottles were made of the material. And polycarbonate plastic was a popular choice among leading reusable water bottle manufacturers like Nalgene... until a growing chorus of concern was raised about BPA's connection to health effects that include reproductive disorders, cancers, heart disease, and obesity.
The second most common use of BPA is in epoxy resins, which are used to line cans to keep the contents from spoiling. Canned food and beverages - including infant formula, fruits, soups, and other items - then become sources of BPA exposure. Approximately 17 percent of the American diet is made up of canned food. According to one independent study, BPA was detected in over half of the 97 cans of name-brand fruit, vegetable, soda, and other foods tested. The highest levels of BPA were found in chicken soup, infant formula, and ravioli - foods commonly eaten by children.
Less than two months ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it now "shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children."
But when it comes to our children's health, we need more than "concern."
While the FDA gave consumers advice on how to avoid BPA, the agency stopped well short of regulating the chemical. The agency did, however, commit to exploring "additional options to regulate BPA under [a] more modern framework."
In the month following the FDA announcement, three state legislatures voted nearly unanimously to forbid the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups that contain bisphenol A (BPA). When these bills are enacted, Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington State will join Connecticut, Minnesota, three counties in New York State and the City of Chicago in closing off one pathway of exposure to this harmful chemical.
But there's much more to be done.
Two bills pending in Congress can keep us moving toward getting this chemical out of the food supply. Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) are sponsoring bills (H.R. 1523 and S. 593) to ban BPA in reusable food containers like baby bottles and in the linings of cans. The bills allow manufacturers who are still pursuing alternatives to apply for a one-year waiver, during which time they would have to label their products as containing the chemical. This would provide consumers the information we need to shop wisely, and manufacturers with a powerful incentive to develop safer packaging.
While baby bottle manufacturers have begun responding to market pressures and policy initiatives around BPA, the packaged food industry could use the push of the labeling requirement in the Markey and Feinstein bills. A 2009 survey of 20 packaged food companies reported that all respondents still used BPA and were taking insufficient steps to move toward alternatives. Only three of the companies that responded had plans to phase out the chemical.
Bisphenol A is just one chemical in the stew of toxics to which we are exposed throughout our lives. States like Connecticut, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington have taken crucial first steps toward getting one of these chemicals out of our children's lives. Congress and the Obama administration should follow their lead and keep us moving toward a toxic-free future.
Follow Elizabeth Hitchcock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uspirg