Monday, May 19, 2008

A formula for improvement

Sometimes consumer awareness hits close to home. My sister-in-law just had a baby, and while she would love to breastfeed her daughter, she is unable to, so our niece will be formula fed. Which is fine, except that I recently learned something troubling: most infant formula containers have bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical associated with adverse developmental effects in studies on lab animals, in them.

While awareness is spreading about BPA in products such as water bottles and baby bottles, for some reason its presence in infant formula containers has not been as widely discussed. One place where it is being examined is the blog Z Recommends, whose authors have undertaken a rigorous campaign of contacting manufacturers of children's feeding products to ascertain whether those items contain BPA, and then sharing their findings with their readers through reports such as this one and this one. The Environmental Working Group also published a report on BPA in formula and baby bottles late last year.

I was glad to learn that at least the type of formula my sister-in-law is using—powdered, in a can—is considered the best option, since the liquid varieties leach more of the chemical. But it's still nonideal.

After the publication last month of a National Toxicology Program brief [link] expressing "some concern" about BPA's effects on humans, the FDA initiated a review of current research and new information on the chemical for all products it regulates. However, its current stance on the matter is this: "Based on our ongoing review, we believe there is a large body of evidence that indicates that FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects."

That's not what the market believes. Because of customer demand and government concern, Wal-Mart's Canadian stores have stopped selling baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, food containers, and water bottles made with BPA. Its U.S. stores will halt BPA-containing baby bottles next year. Toys "R" Us is following in Wal-Mart's footsteps, Nalgene is phasing out its production of BPA-containing bottles [pdf], and a number of companies are now offering BPA-free products.

It seems likely that, despite the FDA's arguable foot-dragging, once the infant-formula issue makes it onto the radar of mainstream consumers and retailers, similar changes will happen there too. That would be good news for my sister-in-law, and lots of others, too.

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