FDA Reviewing Safety of Chemical Used in Baby Bottles, Food Containers

June 4, 2009

The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing its conclusion from last year that a much-debated chemical used in baby bottles and food containers is safe for infants.

The news came just hours after two influential Democrats sent a letter Tuesday questioning that decision to new FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. She has pledged to restore confidence in the agency by putting science first in its decision-making process.

The FDA ruled last year that trace amounts of bisphenol-A, or BPA, that leach out of bottles and food packaging are not dangerous. But the agency’s own advisers faulted the report for relying on a small number of industry-sponsored studies. And consumer advocates said it ignored dozens of animal studies suggesting the chemical can interfere with infant hormone levels.

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said the agency’s chief scientist, Dr. Jesse Goodman, was recently asked to “take a fresh look at this important issue from a scientific and policy position.”

“He intends to review all the data, listen to people on all sides of this issue, and talk to experts inside and outside of the federal government,” Herndon said in a statement. The agency’s review will be completed in “weeks not months,” he added.

In the letter to Hamburg, Reps. Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak questioned whether the agency’s decision on BPA’s safety, made under the Bush administration, may have been influenced by companies.

“The new leadership at the FDA should conduct an immediate review of not only the safety of BPA but also the agency’s interaction with industry groups in making the previous determination that BPA was safe,” said Stupak, D-Mich.

Waxman, D-Calif., is head of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Stupak chairs its subcommittee on oversight.

In a separate letter to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the congressmen asked the group to hand over any documents related to a recent meeting aimed at heading off regulation of bisphenol. The industry group had assembled in Washington to discuss public relations strategy, according to various media reports.

The group includes food packagers like H.J. Heinz and bisphenol producers, including Dow Chemical and Hexion Specialty Chemicals.

In a statement Monday, the group acknowledged the meeting but said “it was nothing more than an effort by industry to find a way to portray correctly the science about BPA that has been repeatedly ignored by the media.”

The North American Metal Packaging Alliance did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Bisphenol is plastic-hardening chemical used in hundreds of household items, including glasses, CDs and canned food. About 90 percent of Americans have traces of bisphenol in their bodies, as the chemical leaches out of food containers.

But while the kidneys of older children and adults quickly eliminate the chemical from their bodies, newborns and infants may retain it for much longer.

Consumer advocates want restrictions on BPA because it mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen, potentially interfering with young, growing bodies.

Major U.S. retailers, including Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., have removed products containing the chemical from their stores. Canada last year banned BPA from all baby bottles and Minnesota last month became the first state to ban baby bottles and sippy cups made with the chemical.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical producers, says the ban is unwarranted and not based on science.

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