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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Plastics and Baby Bottles

Air Date: Week of

Scientists have recently raised concerns that chemicals in the plastics used in some plastic wraps, baby bottles and teethers could leach out and be harmful. Steve talks with Ned Groth, director of technical policy and public service at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, about the latest research.


CURWOOD: An infant snacks on a slice of cheese, sips from a bottle, and then chews on a teething ring. It sounds innocent enough, but scientists are raising doubts about the safety of plastics used in some plastic wraps, baby bottles, and teethers. That's because a variety of chemicals, adipates in plastic wrap, bisphenyl-A in baby bottles, and phthalates in baby teethers appear to leach out of the plastic in minute quantities. Ned Groth is director of technical policy and public service at Consumer's Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. I spoke with him at a recent conference on children's health and he told me that lab tests involving these chemicals are causing concern.

GROTH: When you give a laboratory rodent a large dose of some of these chemicals, with the phthalates you can get cancer, you can get other toxic effects on the nervous system, on the liver, on certain growth and reproductive effects. With the adipates, there are some similar toxic effects on the liver and the kidneys and so on. Again, at high doses. And with bisphenyl-A in particular, we know it acts like the hormone estrogen at relatively low doses in that case.

CURWOOD: So, if a baby bottle has bisphenyl-A, which is like estrogen, like a hormone, what risk could a baby run drinking milk or liquid out of a bottle like that?

GROTH: Well, in animals, there are changes in the growth and development of the male reproductive tract. And the most sensitive animal study done to date, which is only one study, showed effects at a level that's only maybe a factor of 10 greater than a baby might be exposed to if someone heated formula for a long time.

CURWOOD: Dr. Groth, the Food and Drug Administration has come out and said that polycarbonate baby bottles are perfectly safe. Do you agree?

GROTH: I think the Food and Drug Administration has not really looked into the issue from the perspective of possible hormonal effects. They may be taking a fairly legalistic posture, which is until there's more convincing evidence of harm they can't say it's harmful. It's one thing to say we can't say it's harmful; I think everyone would say that. It's another to say we know for sure it's safe.

CURWOOD: Is there any kind of plastic that would be safe to use for teething, for babies to have for their bottles, to use for plastic wrap?

GROTH: Sure, there are lots of plastics that don't leach chemicals into whatever food they're in contact with. I mean, our test of cheeses, we looked at 7 different kinds of plastic cheese wrap, and only 1, polyvinyl chloride cling wrap, had DEHA plasticizer in it. The rest were all fine. Similarly, there are alternative plastics used in baby bottles. There are products on the market including some tinted plastic bottles that are made of polypropylene, which is not a problem in terms of leaching. There used to be, I hope there still are, some bottles made out of polyethylene, which is the material that milk jugs are made out of. So, the message is not that all plastic is bad. Most plastics are fine. But there are a few materials, and a few additives used in some plastics, that are problematic. And we're trying to focus attention on them.

CURWOOD: Under what circumstances do chemicals leach out of plastic?

GROTH: Well, it depends on the chemical and the kind of plastic. In the case of food wraps, it helps if there is a high fat content in the food. That tends to make the plastic leach out more rapidly. It's one reason we looked at cheese: it's a high-fat food that's consumed in large quantities by children. Temperature will increase the rate of leaching. Plastic that babies chew on, like the teethers, the physical action of chewing and the presence of saliva is a factor that might tend to extract some of the plasticizer. It's a low-level exposure in all of these scenarios. It's just a question of, we don't know if it's a safe exposure.

CURWOOD: Now, a number of toy manufacturers are phasing out vinyl teethers. Even companies including Nike say they're just going to try to get rid of polyvinyl chloride. What about the manufacturers of plastic wrap and baby bottles?

GROTH: We haven't heard much from the plastic wrap industry. We have been in some dialogue with the baby bottle manufacturers. I think that will continue. I think many of the companies that make polycarbonate bottles make other bottles as well, and they may find that if people tend to steer away from one type of plastic they may go toward the other. So it may be a wash for them in terms of their business. Historically in the United States, the government has had to prove that there's a risk before the industry will change the product. We've had a lot of cases in this country where companies that make products that are particularly designed for use by babies have seen an issue coming like this and have said: We're not going to wait till the government proves there's a risk. Why worry about it? Let's change. The teether industry is now eliminating phthalates, for instance. I think this is the way a lot of these issues should be resolved, because it will take science decades, really to nail down answers to the questions. And babies don't need to wait that long. We can solve the problem economically, efficiently, much faster than that.

CURWOOD: Thanks for joining us.

GROTH: Thank you very much, Steve. It's a pleasure being with you.

CURWOOD: Ned Groth is Director of Technical Policy and Public Service at Consumer's Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. You can find more information on plastic baby bottles on our Web site at www.loe.org. And in the July issue of Consumer Reports.



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