WASHINGTON The Food and Drug Administration this week reopens the debate over a chemical used in many plastic products -- including baby bottles -- amid mixed messages on its safety from the U.S. government.
An FDA panel of outside experts on Tuesday was set to review the agency's draft report issued last month saying that bisphenol A, or BPA, is safe. Critics argue the FDA has ignored strong evidence in animal studies that BPA is harmful.
Government toxicologists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health on Sept. 3 reiterated their view that BPA presents "some concern" for harmful effects on development of the prostate and brain and for behavioral changes in fetuses, infants and children.
BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastic, a clear shatter-resistant material in products ranging from baby and water bottles to sports safety equipment and medical devices.
It also is used to make durable epoxy resins used as the coating in most food and beverage cans and in dental fillings.
People can consume BPA when it leaches out of plastic into liquid such as baby formula, water or food inside a container.
Environmental and consumer safety groups say studies show the chemical can interfere with how the body absorbs the hormone estrogen, which is key to the development of young bodies.
The NIH's National Toxicology Program, or NTP, became the first U.S. government agency to embrace health concerns regarding BPA. It followed up this draft report with a final report this month reiterating the concerns.
The FDA said the meeting would focus on these worries.
"FDA concludes that an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses, for infants and adults," the FDA said in its draft report.
The agency said its findings were based on "a full examination of data considered pivotal to the relevant exposure levels associated with food contact substances."
The European Union's top food safety body said in July the amount of BPA found in baby bottles cannot harm human health.
"Many common consumer products that contribute to healthier and safer lives are based on plastics and resins made from bisphenol A, which has a 50-year safety track record," the American Chemistry Council industry group said in a statement.
Critics have argued the FDA's views are based principally on industry-funded studies clearing the chemical even though many other studies have raised health concerns.
"We have serious concerns about FDA's risk assessment for bisphenol A," Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group advocacy organization said in a telephone interview.
"I am hopeful the agency will begin to listen to the large amount of scientific evidence from independent scientists about the consequences of bisphenol A, particularly on children's health, and weigh that very heavily against industry-supported science that has been informing their decisions," said Elizabeth Hitchcock of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Some leading retailers plan to stop selling products made with BPA and some manufacturers say they will phase it out.
Democratic U.S. senators in April introduced a bill to ban BPA in children's products. Canada's government in April decided BPA was harmful to infants and toddlers and announced plans to ban some products.
U.S. states including California, Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan are considering bills to ban or restrict BPA in children's products.
(Editing by Bill Trott)