May 19, 2008 12:00 PM

Are plastic baby bottles a danger to the infants who drink from them? A preliminary report from the National Institutes of Health suggests that hard plastic made with an ingredient named bisphenol A (BPA), found in baby and reusable water bottles, may pose serious health risks. Retailers like Wal-mart and Toys-R-Us announced plans to pull the products from shelves. Here’s what else you need to know:

WHAT IS BISPHENOL A?

Bisphenol A is a chemical used in a wide range of products like bicycle helmets, CDs and cell phones, as well as containers designed to hold baby formula and water. Many are marked on the bottom with the following recycling codes: the number 7 inside a triangle, or the letters PC. An epoxy containing BPA is also used in the lining of food cans.

IS BPA A HEALTH RISK?

A 2004 Centers for Disease Control study found traces of BPA—which can leach from containers into food and beverages—in the urine of 93 percent of 2,500 people tested. Whether it is harmful to humans has not been proven. But studies in animals suggest that BPA mimics the female hormone estrogen and can cause breast and prostate cancer, thyroid disease, early puberty in females and decreased sperm counts in males. “There is enough there that we can’t dismiss the possibility there might be similar effects in humans,” says Dr. Michael D. Shelby of the NIH’s National Toxicology Program. The plastics industry, however, maintains the products are safe.

WHO IS AT RISK?

Because of their developing organs, fetuses, infants and children could be most affected by low-level exposure to BPA. The recent NIH study reports “negligible concern” for adults.

HOW CAN I AVOID EXPOSURE?

Use products stamped with recycling codes 1, 2 or 5, which denote BPA-free hard plastics. Glass bottles are safe, as are stainless steel or aluminum water bottles. Also, avoid heating BPA products in the microwave, says Michael Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice: “BPA tends to leach faster with higher temperatures.”

For more info on BPA, go to http://www.nieh.nih.gov or http://www.fda.gov

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