FDA’s BPA Ban: Little change for consumers, a band-aid for industry

No longer will parents wonder if the bottles and sippy cups their precious little ones suck and slurp all day are wreaking havoc on their children’s developing reproductive systems.

The FDA settled the matter in last week’s announcement that U.S. manufacturers of such products may no longer use polycarbonate resins containing bisphenol-A (BPA), which some research indicates may disrupt proper development of the reproductive and nervous systems in babies and children. The FDA issued the ban in response to the American Chemistry Council’s petition that sought the ban because manufacturers had “intentionally and permanently abandoned” the use of BPA.

For baby bottles and sippy cups, parents technically haven’t had to worry safety for years, beginning when manufacturers agreed to stop using BPA at the behest of the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey in October 2008.

What’s in it for the consumers? The FDA’s decision is viewed by many as symbolic and expected to have little impact on the marketplace and consumers.

What’s in it for the BPA industry? The bigger, more subtle impact may be seen by chemical manufacturers who hope the ban will limit the collateral damage that has come to BPA with the negative publicity associated with baby bottles and sippy cups.

BPA by the billions. Every year, 2 billion pounds of BPA are manufactured/imported in U.S. and 1 million pounds are released into the environment. BPA is used in manufacturing polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, and nearly every industry in the United States uses it.

People are believed to be exposed primarily through food packaging, which only accounts for less than 5% of total BPA production. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, BPA is a reproductive, developmental and systemic toxicant, and as such there are questions and concerns about potential effects even at low doses or concentrations.

Little help for consumers. The FDA’s ban does little to help consumers at this point. BPA hasn’t been in these products for years, so new rule does not necessarily improve safety, nor is it expected to impact consumer choices or buying habits. BPA will remain in other food contact materials as always, because the agency continues to support the safety of BPA for products that hold food.

The FDA issued the rule because its own regulations allow it to ban a food additive that is no longer in use. Mark Gardner, an attorney whose practice focuses on FDA law, says while it is not typical for the FDA to issue a ban like this, it does occasionally happen: “The FDA’s job is to protect consumers. If a chemical like BPA is harmful, then FDA is going to get involved. If a chemical is no longer used in a certain application, and is even banned in China, then the FDA wants to follow suit. This is a layup for the agency. The PR fallout of not banning it in this case could have been an issue for the agency.”

Industry cuts its losses. Why would the ACC seek to ban a chemical it promotes? The ACC is the chemical industry’s largest trade association, and it’s Polcycarbonate/BPA Global Group “promotes the business interests and general welfare of the polycarbonate and bisphenol A (BPA) industry.” The shots that BPA has taken over baby bottles and sippy cups may have caused enough pain for broader BPA industry that the ACC determined it was time to remove the gangrenous limb.

The ACC issued this excerpted news release and statement following the FDA’s ban:

Although governments around the world continue to support the safety of BPA in food contact materials, confusion about whether BPA is used in baby bottles and sippy cups had become an unnecessary distraction to consumers, legislators and state regulators . . . . FDA action on this request now provides certainty that BPA is not used to make the baby bottles and sippy cups on store shelves, either today or in the future.”
. . . .

State legislative and regulatory actions across the country had contributed to confusion about whether baby bottles and sippy cups sold in the United States contain BPA.

The upsides for industry. The BPA industry may benefit in at least two ways from the new ban:

1.    States will stop beating the dead horse. First, state legislative bodies will no longer need to pass laws to ban the substance in baby bottles and sippy cups, even after manufacturers have stopped using it. This means no more state legislative hearings, no more testimony and scientific evidence about the potential toxicity of BPA, and no more media reports involving BPA, babies and baby bottles. A very good thing for the chemical industry.

2.    No more need to be “BPA-free.” Second, the ban could ultimately mean an end to the ubiquitous “BPA-free” on every baby bottle and sippy cup sold in the U.S. This, along with an end to the extensive promotion of BPA-free products and information about BPA at manufacturer websites may also benefit the industry by reducing the marketplace saturation suggesting BPA is something to be “free” of.

BPA still has baggage. The baby bottle ban, however, does not end the industry’s challenges. Industry, environmental and health advocacy groups and government regulators will continue to hammer out how much of BPA should be removed from other food contact materials, including baby formula containers, not covered by the FDA’s new rule.

What’s more, BPA continues to undergo review and study from other governmental agencies, including the EPA, who is studying the effect of BPA on aquatic species, determining how BPA enters the environment and assessing how to reduce BPA release and exposures.

ACC has devoted considerable resources to inform and educate the public about the safety and necessity of BPA, as can be seen from a quick preview of the ACC- sponsored websites devoted to BPA safety and benefits: http://factsaboutbpa.org, http://www.bisphenol-a.org/index.html, http://www.plasticsinfo.org/. This, no doubt, will continue.

By removing this singular occurrence of BPA from the consumer consciousness, industry might be able to limit the pervasive message that BPA is potentially harming children and more effectively support and promote BPA production and use.

This article also appears at StarTribune.com.

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