A new report from the National Institutes of Health's National Toxicology Program says that a chemical found in hard plastic water bottles might be harmful to fetuses, infants and children, contradicting a previous statement from the Food and Drug Administration that said otherwise.
The news leaves wary retailers even more skeptical about the safety of products containing the substance bisphenol A, and some natural products retailers continue to advise caution to their clients.
"As far as BPA goes, we tell our customers that if they're using BPA, [they should] minimize [those products'] exposure to heat, don't put them in the microwave, don't leave them in the car," said Jeff Watson, store manager of Life Source Natural Foods in Salem, Ore., who added, "I sort of view all plastics as something to avoid."
BPA is found in some food and drink packaging such as water bottles, infant bottles as well as compact discs, impact-resistant safety equipment and medical devices. It's also found in lacquers used to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water-supply pipes, according to the NTP Web site. The ubiquity of BPA in canned goods makes it especially difficult for retailers to avoid it, Watson said.
"The industry's starting to understand this issue, but it looks like it's going to take awhile to change," Watson said. "We're letting our vendors know that we're concerned about it. Eden Foods has been on the forefront of this for years, and they have a non-BPA liner in their cans, so we promote them to our customers."
When managers at Better Life Natural Foods, in Ellensburg, Wash., first heard the buzz about BPA about a year ago, they started selling BPA-free bottles like the stainless-steel ones made by Chico, Calif., company Klean Kanteen.
"We got the Klean Kanteens to offer an alternative bottle to our customers," Better Life Manager Delana Carr said.
The NIH report expressed "some concern," the institutes' third-highest level of concern out of five, that current levels of human exposure to BPA may cause harmful effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in the unborn and the very young.
The potential dangers of BPA have been well-known for years, but the FDA, which started an investigation into potential dangers, had recently issued a statement saying, "[The] FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while we continue our risk-assessment process."
After the NIH's report came out, the FDA, which did not return a call by deadline, issued the following statement to the NIH in response:
"We are pleased to see the finalization of the NTP report," FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner and Chief Scientist Frank Torti said. "The FDA will consider this final report in our role as a regulatory agency and joins NTP in the call for additional research in this important area."
In an audio file posted on the NTP Web site, John Bucher, the organization's associate director, said the concern stemmed from a lack of studies on human subjects.
"The studies in humans are really inadequate to reach any kind of conclusion, but the studies in animals have shown a variety of effects at very, very low levels when BPA is given to pregnant animals," Bucher said. "Although these are not completely understood with regard to how these effects might transfer to actual human effects and human risks, the fact that we are seeing these at levels ... not particularly different from those experienced by humans would indicate to us that these effects cannot be completely dismissed at this point."
The news came as no surprise to John Pittari, owner of New Morning Natural & Organic in Woodbury, Conn.
"We don't sell any consumer products with BPA and have not for many years. We have always offered alternatives which have become phenomenally popular," Pittari said, adding he has trouble keeping stainless-steel water bottles in stock. "We offer glass and corn-based plastic baby bottles or other plastic-resin children's pacifiers or teething rings and sippy cups that are BPA-free."
The report also expressed "minimal concern," the second-lowest level, that BPA exposure might harm workers exposed to high levels of BPA on the job and that the more typical levels of exposure might harm the female mammary gland in fetuses, infants and children. The report showed "negligible concern," the lowest level, that BPA exposure could cause birth defects, and that adults would experience harmful reproductive effects at current exposure levels.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group issued a press release lauding the NTP report and bashing the FDA. "NTP reviewed over 100 independent scientific studies before reaching its conclusion, while FDA relied solely on three chemical-industry-funded reports," the release said.
The Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, a division of the NTP, conducted the NTP investigation.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 24,28