Whole Health: The BPA Switcheroo

When the Food and Drug Administration aired its concerns last month about bisphenol-A, or BPA, the much-maligned chemical used to strengthen plastic in food packaging, baby bottles and many reusable containers, the public response was: What took you so long? Almost everyone else, from consumers to retailers to legislators, had heeded earlier warnings from various sources, and didn't need a government

When the Food and Drug Administration aired its concerns last month about bisphenol-A, or BPA, the much-maligned chemical used to strengthen plastic in food packaging, baby bottles and many reusable containers, the public response was: What took you so long?

Almost everyone else, from consumers to retailers to legislators, had heeded earlier warnings from various sources, and didn't need a government opinion to know they should be concerned with the chemical, which studies show acts as an endocrine-disrupter. Millions have already cleared their shelves and cupboards of the bottles and other items that contain BPA.

“The FDA came to the table a little late, although we're glad they did,” said Alex Formuzis, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, noting the FDA announcement is essentially a reversal of an earlier opinion, which found the evidence against BPA inconclusive.

Protecting the very young always has been the No. 1 priority. Whole Foods stopped selling BPA baby bottles in 2006, followed by Safeway in late 2007. Several months later, Wal-Mart followed suit, and pretty soon stores across the country were transitioning their stock to non-BPA alternatives. States and cities like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago passed sales bans, as well.

This wave of action, combined with the mounting scientific evidence against BPA, is what many believe spurred the FDA to act. In 2008, the National Toxicology Program, part of the government-run National Institutes of Health, issued a scathing report against the FDA's inaction, faulting the agency for relying on limited evidence.

“The facts were so stacked against their former position that they had no place else to go,” said Formuzis.

The FDA's new stance doesn't place any restrictions on BPA production, though it does call for increased scrutiny. The government will spend $30 million to further study BPA's effect on humans and, in addition, officials offered recommendations for limiting exposure, like making sure not to put hot foods or liquids into containers made with BPA.

The chemical and manufacturing industries, including the American Chemistry Council, released a statement saying that the FDA's latest actions will “likely worry consumers and are not well founded.”

But the momentum against BPA may be too great for anyone to overcome. In addition to phasing out BPA-containing baby bottles, retailers like Whole Foods are working with manufacturers to banish BPA entirely. Many suppliers, meanwhile, have altered their production processes completely. Camelbak, which manufacturers plastic and aluminum water bottles, recently offered — in a takeoff on the government's “Cash for Clunkers” car trade-in program — a BPA-free aluminum bottle to the first 500 customers who sent in a picture of their old BPA-lined “clunker.”