BPA in baby bottles: a genuine worry, or just a media scare?

Kristen asked, “Will you please explain the BPA concern in bottles? There is quite a bit of information about it, but I’m having a hard time determining if the bottles I use contain it or not since I don’t see any number on my bottles (Avent). Is a drop in system the best alternative while companies are determining which products are safe? Thanks for any information and help in finding the ‘correct’ bottle.”

As with many issues of toxins and exposures, no one knows with 100% certainty that the amount of BPA that a bottle-fed baby is exposed to will definitely never cause any health problems. I will say based on the available data and the best studies, BPA is almost certainly not something that’s going to harm your child. There are BPA-free alternatives if this is something that you find yourself continuing to worry about.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in the production of polycarbonate plastics, which are clear, durable, and nearly shatterproof. They’ve been used in the food industry for years, and no direct studies of humans exposed to BPA from ordinary sources has ever shown any harm. It is known that in very high doses, BPA is toxic to mice and probably other animals. The doses that show toxicity are thousands of times higher than those that people experience.

There are certainly very vocal people on both sides of this issue. A report with the attention grabbing title, “Baby’s Toxic Bottle,” led to a lot of recent media exposure. Researched and published by a consortium of environmental groups, this study confirmed that BPA does leach from baby bottles, especially when heated. This wasn’t new information, and had in fact been known for years. The question isn’t whether BPA is there or not; the question is whether it is even near a level at which harm might occur.

The plastic bottle manufacturers have their own response. They point out the convenience and long track record of safety of plastics in the food industry in this well-referenced, industry sponsored site. Many government agencies from several countries have all concluded that these products are safe, and that there are very large margins of safety between what babies are exposed to and what levels might cause harm.

A very detailed government web site from the National Institutes of Health reviews the process of the government review of the safety of BPA, and the conclusions of several working groups. The bottom line is that there is no evidence that the level of BPA in foods, including baby formula from bottles, is harmful; but that they cannot exclude the possibility that the very low doses could have a very small harmful effect. They call for more research, which is ongoing.

According to Avent’s site, their reusable bottles are made from polycarbonate and will leach BPA. Almost all hard-plastic bottles distributed in the USA are made of a similar material. If marked for recycling, these are all number “7”. If you wish to avoid this source of BPA and are bottle-feeding, use disposable drop-in liners or glass bottles.

Baby bottles aren’t the only potential source of BPA in formula. The containers that formulas are packaged in often have plastic liners that might leach BPA. In fact, BPA is found in human breast milk. As with many environmental exposures, it is just about impossible to eliminate all sources of chemicals from your child’s life, including BPA.

Which brings up a crucial point: the 24-hour news cycle has helped create an atmosphere of fear and hysteria about many issues concerning children’s health. The media relies on stories from people who feel very strongly about issues. These make heartfelt, appealing news items, but the media often doesn’t follow through with actual facts and context about whether the worry is realistic.

We like the idea of eliminating all sources of any potential harm from our children’s lives, but this is obviously an unrealistic goal that would turn any parent into a basket case. Because it is nearly impossible to prove a negative—is it possible that even a tiny amount of BPA might cause a problem in a tiny proportion of children?—scientists that are truthful about their lack of absolute certainly might inadvertently add credence to the scare mongers. No, we can’t say for 100% certain that BPA is safe; nor that the amount of sun exposure kids get is safe; nor their exposure to solar radiation or radiation from radon; nor their exposure to chemicals from your carpet or ozone being released from the power supply of your computer. The best thing for parents to do is to take reasonable steps to minimize exposures (wear sunscreen, test your home for very high radon levels), rather than assume that all exposures to potential environmental toxins must be zero for your child to be safe.

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5 Comments on “BPA in baby bottles: a genuine worry, or just a media scare?”

  1. Kristen Says:

    EDIT by Dr Roy: Kristen posted the comment below in the suggestions thread before I wrote the answer. I moved her comment here:

    I apologize for posting a topic before researching more. After I posted, I did more research online and made some phone calls today. My understanding is that it is more of a concern if the bottle is heated with liquid in it. I was able to verify that the 2 types of bottles I had did contain BPA. Even though I don’t heat in the microwave, I decided to exchange them for BPA free bottles to be safe. Babies R Us at Abernathy did an even exchange of my bottles for some BPA free bottles. (FYI-Babies R Us at North Point said they do not offer that same convenience.) Thanks for the opportunity to ask the question. I love the posts!!!


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Kristen, you’re right that more BPA leaches out during heating. I’m glad you found a place that was happy to exchange your bottles. Thanks for the posts!


  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    Update: It looks like the FDA is about to publicly declare that their review has confirmed BPA is safe: http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5jAUo4LtG0-_vOJe0zmHPp03zQRRg


  4. Alex Says:

    Thanks Doc for turning down the scary noises a notch.


  5. Dr. Roy Says:

    I posted some updated info here: http://blogs.webmd.com/childrens-health/2012/08/bpa-a-partial-reversal-from-the-fda.html

    The issue is still clear as mud.


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