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California won't warn public about bisphenol A

July 17, 2009 | 11:00 am

Bottle

A state panel's decision not to require warning labels on products containing a chemical that has been linked to cancer and reproductive problems may say more about the limitations of the panel than the toxicity of the chemical.

While more than 200 studies have linked bisphenol A to problems ranging from behavioral issues to cancer, products containing the chemical will not carry warning labels, according to a decision made Wednesday by the California Environmental Protection Agency's Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee.

"This isn't exactly a committee that's on the cutting edge of public health decisions in California," said Gretchen Lee Salter, policy director at the Breast Cancer Fund.

BPA is found in hard plastics and in the linings of cans and baby formula containers.

The seven-member panel of scientists and physicians provides one venue through which products can get slapped with a warning label under California's 1986 Proposition 65 ballot initiative. The panel is charged with identifying chemicals that cause reproductive harm.

Critics point out that the panel was not convinced it should add second-hand smoke to the Prop 65 list of suspect chemicals until 2006, and that it has only added one chemical in the last three years.

The panel's chair, Dorothy Burk, said in a phone interview Thursday that the panel's stringent standards for adding chemicals to the list are a "quirk of Prop 65."

"By law we can only look at prenatal exposure, so that's why we struggle so long," said Burk. "We may be thinking there is something here but we just don't have enough evidence to say it clearly causes this."

Under Prop 65, chemicals can also be added to the list if an "authoritative body" has found that the chemical causes reproductive toxicity.

Immediately following the panel's decision on Wednesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council presented a petition demanding that BPA be added to the list because a study by the National Toxicology Program -- a panel it termed an "authoritative body" -- had found "some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A."

"We believe that this chemical must legally be listed regardless of what the panel said yesterday," said Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at NRDC.

A lawyer for the state EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment said the state agency will need to review the documents.

"We'll have to look at the petition, and then the NTP document to see if it's sufficient for meeting our regulatory critera for listing," said Carol Monahan-Cummings in a written statement Thursday.

Most groups see the panel's decision as a minor setback in the larger battle to ban BPA. Retailers have already pulled products containing BPA off the shelves and some consumers stopped buying plastic water and baby bottles years ago.

"We see the decision as basically a speed bump on the way to banning a chemical that we think people should not be ingesting, especially pregnant women or infants and toddlers," said Bill Allayaud,  Director of Government Affairs for California's Environmental Working Group.

The state senate voted in June to ban BPA in food and drink containers for children under three. The vote will come before the state assembly later this summer.

Although the panel may not have found the scientific evidence strong enough to warn the public against using products that contain BPA, the panel's chairperson said personally subscribes to the "precautionary principle."

"I think if I had a baby I probably would try to use glass," said Burk in a phone interview Thursday.

--Amy Littlefield

Photo: Many consumers have switched from plastic to glass baby bottles since studies linked BPA to reproductive damage and other health problems. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

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