Plastics challenge

It’s in water bottles, music CDs, the linings of your food and beverage cans, and hundreds of other items you use every day without a second thought. It’s also in your bloodstream, and that’s something you should be concerned about.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a key building block for polycarbonate plastics, and it’s present in everything from food storage containers to the sealant on dental fillings. Because small amounts of BPA can leach from many of these products into the environment, and even into our food and water, we all have traces of the chemical in our bodies. That’s troubling, because BPA long has been associated with a variety of health problems and recently has been found to have links to prostate cancer.

The city of San Francisco has already acted to ban BPA from baby bottles, teething toys and other products likely to expose young children to it, and it’s likely that this year will see renewed efforts to institute a ban on the state level. With evidence mounting regarding BPA risks, we urge Sacramento leaders to follow San Francisco’s lead, to introduce a ban on the use of BPA in children’s products.

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees that BPA is a problem. The chemical industry continues to insist that it is safe in low-level exposures most people encounter, and so far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has agreed.

But evidence is mounting that even in low exposure levels, BPA can be dangerous, especially for infants and developing fetuses. BPA is eerily similar to estrogen, the naturally occurring hormone that regulates sexual development, and since the 1990s, early exposure has been linked to a variety of problems, ranging from early puberty and undescended testicles to birth defects like hypospadia. Recently, scientists at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that exposing newborn rats to low levels of BPA permanently damaged their genes in ways that caused them to develop prostate cancer. Given that BPA tends to concentrate in the placenta and amniotic fluid of pregnant women in five to 10 times the levels found in the average adult, the research raises troubling questions about the potential for prenatal exposure to BPA to cause prostate cancer decades down the line.

As with all animal studies, it remains to be seen how well the findings will apply to humans. But as scientific evidence of the risks accumulates, and as rates of reproductive-system diseases continue to rise, it’s time to take some common-sense measures to limit exposure. For consumers, this means avoiding using cookware or food storage items containing BPA and being especially careful about microwaving plastics, which can cause them to leach BPA at higher levels. For our state legislators, it means following San Francisco’s lead and banning BPA from child-care products.

Assemblywoman Wilma Chan of Oakland introduced just such a ban in January, only to have it die in committee amid intense lobbying by the plastic industry. Chan is planning to reintroduce the bill later this year, and we urge support for this important effort.