Keeping children safe from toxic chemicals is no easy task these days.

The current offender: Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical used to make plastic clear and hard. It also keeps bacteria from contaminating foods and prevents cans from rusting.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 90 percent of all Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. This statistics doesn't surprise Deborah Ann Mulligan, MD FAAP FACEP, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' executive council on communications and media and professor of pediatrics at Nova Southeastern University who says BPA is a ubiquitous component of the environment. "When BPA comes in contact with food or liquid surfaces, a small amount can leach into the product and we end up ingesting it. In today's society, it's tough to avoid it."

Although BPA is known to disrupt normal endocrine functioning and new research on very-low dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral, and reproductive problems, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to advise consumers to discontinue using products that contain BPA since BPA has not been proven to harm children or adults.

Reducing the BPA Risk

But the recent findings challenge the long-standing scientific and legal presumption of BPA's safety and the FDA has been under significant pressure to regulate BPA.

"It's clear the government, scientists and doctors need more research to better understand the health effects," Dr. Mulligan admits adding that concern is most worrisome for children. "Detoxifying chemicals is most difficult for infants and young children since their bodies are in early development and they have immature systems."

The good news is we should know more within the next 18 to 24 months. The Department of Health and Human Services-through the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the FDA-is investing more than $30 million in important new health studies in both animals and humans.

Until we learn more, the government advises following these steps to protect your family:

  1. If it's an option, breastfeed your baby. HHS supports the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations breastfeeding infants for at least 12 months as breast milk is the optimal source of nutrition. If this isn't an option, use iron-fortified infant formula preferably in powdered form. (The FDA has found that powdered infant formula mix typically has no detectable level of BPA, but the liquid infant formula that comes in cans does.)
  2. Decode the numbers. Check the label on your bottles and food preparation containers. Steer clear of clear, plastic baby bottles or containers with the recycling numbers 3 or 7 and the letters "PC" imprinted on them as they may contain BPA. Switch to glass or frosted bottles since neither contain BPA. (As of January 2009 the six major U.S. manufacturers of baby bottles and infant feeding cups have confirmed to the FDA that are no longer using BPA to produce their products.)
  3. Take note of the temperature. Very hot or boiling liquid can raise the BPA levels in plastic containers. So can washing plastic in the dishwasher or microwaving food in it.
  4. Go for glass. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises against microwaving food in plastic containers. Glass and steel are better choices for storage and drinking, according to the agency.
  5. Avoid scratched, cracked, or cloudy plastics especially those used for feeding babies and young children, such as dishes, containers, and sippy cups.
  6. Pacifiers are safe. According to HHS, the part of the pacifier that a child puts in her mouth is made from latex or silicone and does not contain BPA. No worries about offering a cranky baby relief from her favorite paci. The hard plastic shield designed to prevent swallowing in some pacifiers might contain BPA. However, the only exposure would come from the child mouthing the shield, and the transfer of BPA would be negligible in most cases.
  7. Be an informed consumer. Reading labels and checking with manufacturers can help parents make smart choices for babies and children. When in doubt, ask the store's owner about the contents of a particular item and avoid using high-risk plastic for now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Interview Deborah Ann Mulligan, MD FAAP FACEP
Chief Medical Officer, MDLive Care
Institute for Child Health Policy, Director
Professor Pediatrics, COM
Institute for Disaster and Emergency Preparedness
Nova Southeastern University
Amer. Academy of Pediatrics, Exec. Council on Comm. & Media, Chair

The Department of Health and Human Services