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Consumers bear responsibility to ensure safe use of plastics

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As consumers we tend to assume the products we find on store shelves are safe — after all, there are regulations. Surely, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t let anything harmful reach millions of consumers.

Unfortunately, given the number of recalls that hit the nation, it seems consumers have to do their own homework and make up their own minds about product safety.

Enter the BPA debate.

BPA — which stands for bisphenol A — is a chemical used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. It’s been around since the 1960s and is found in pretty much every plastic product, from food storage containers to food wrap, drinking bottles, baby bottles, sippy cups and the protective liners in metal cans.

EWG’s tips to avoid BPA exposure

Greener Penny (Top Food Storage Picks)

BPA Fact Page from Safer States


The problem is that BPA in plastic leaches into food, with potentially damaging health effects. Independent lab tests have linked BPA in canned goods with birth defects of the male and female reproductive systems, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

Other studies have linked BPA — a hormone disrupter — to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, early-onset puberty and attention-deficit hyperactivity.

The American Chemistry Council insists that BPA has been thoroughly studied and is safe. Besides that — let’s face it — it’s pretty much everywhere.

So it falls back on consumers to make up their minds on this confusing matter. Some believe it’s better to be safe than sorry, while others wave away the warnings, saying nothing has been proved yet.

The Environmental Working Group recommends that kids and pregnant women limit canned food consumption, especially canned pasta and soups, which contain the highest BPA levels. The recommendation includes avoiding all No. 7 plastics, especially for children’s foods (and the group recommends against microwaving any food in plastic).

Safer choices for food storage include plastics Nos. 1, 2 and 4 (low-density polyethylene), and glass or ceramic containers. Stainless steel is now the container of choice over aluminum for drinking water.

A number of manufacturers now offer BPA-free baby bottles (and let’s hope they really are BPA-free), while glass is making a comeback.

BPA bans for baby and children’s products are in place in at least seven states, including New York, Vermont, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Hawaii lawmakers will consider a ban next year. At the national level, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., plans to introduce an amendment in Congress to ban BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food and infant formula as part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

At this time the FDA is not recommending consumers discontinue using "food contact materials" that contain BPA. However, the agency says it "has some concern" about its potential effects, and is taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply. Meanwhile, it supports industry actions to stop producing BPA-containing bottles for infants in the U.S. market.

Two years ago Canada took the bold step of banning BPA from baby bottles, and went a step further this month by declaring it a toxic substance. It’s about time the U.S. followed suit.

As a consumer, what will you decide?

Nina Wu writes a column about environmental issues on the first Monday of every month. E-mail her at


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