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Bisphenol A is a substance found in baby bottles, pacifiers, drink containers and various plastic products. A dispute is currently raging as to the health risk posed by what is commonly called BPA, which is apparently able to leak into the human body.

Industrial and health authority sources have claimed the substance is not dangerous, and declare there is no justification for imposing restrictions on its use. However, some scientists believe that even exposure to small quantities of it could be harmful, especially to the hormonal system.

In recent months the government of Canada has advanced legislation to prohibit the use of BPA, while Connecticut became the second state to place restrictions on its use, and Chicago, the third-largest city in the United States, followed suit.

In Europe the nonprofit Antidote organization, headed by an Israeli, Dr. Andre Menache, has embarked on a public campaign to ban use of BPA. Antidote, which engages mainly in research concerning public health, has appealed to the president of the European Parliament, Prof. Jerzy Buzek, with a request to examine the risks inherent in the substance.

A year ago, the European Union defined a threshold level at which exposure to BPA is harmless. However, Menache argues that the risk assessment process did not take into account daily exposure to the substance and cannot be relied upon for determining risks.

According to various studies, including one in which Antidote was involved, the main risk in exposure to BPA involves the hormonal system. Its use may increase chances for contracting diseases like Parkinson's, cancer and Type 2 diabetes, affect the reproductive system and cause decreased male fertility. According to Menache, even in concentrations lower than those the EU calls safe, babies and fetuses can suffer hormonal problems.

However, studies carried out by various other organizations present a far more reassuring picture. The National Risk Assessment Agency in Germany last month reported that no BPA was found, after food was heated in plastic bottles under ordinary conditions.

"Parents who are still concerned can switch to glass bottles," noted the report, adding, "they should remember that such bottles are liable to break. There are also bottles made of polyether sulphone, advertised as 'BPA free,' but they have not been tested."

In Israel to date no government restrictions have been imposed on products with BPA. "There is uncertainty as to the affects of low-level exposure to it," the Health Ministry stated last week. "However, a panel of public health services experts at the ministry will examine ways of decreasing babies' and young children's exposure to it. There is a clear recommendation not to heat formula or water for preparing such formula in the bottles [with BPA], to prevent possible leakage."

Says Antidote's Menache: "The manufacturers are saying that anyone who is worried about exposure to the substance can take precautionary measures or avoid using certain products, but this is impossible because it already exists everywhere. We want the EU to absolutely ban the use of this substance and we will try to create a united front with green organizations and members of parliament to achieve this aim."

In the scientific community, too, the debate is raging. The journal of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reported recently on the disagreement among scientists whose research was funded by industry, and a group of those headed by experts John Myers and Frederick vom Saal.

The two severely criticized industry-funded studies on laboratory mice, which determined that no developmental or reproductive damage results from exposure to low BPA levels.

According to the researchers, the studies were conducted on unsuitable animals, "and are so seriously flawed as to be indefensible."