Health Update: Baby Bottle Buzz -- Toxic or Not?
Why Baby Bottles May Be Unsafe
Your baby's bottles may not be as safe as they seem. According to a new report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, certain types of plastic bottles contain a potentially dangerous chemical called bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to a number of health conditions in animals, including early onset of puberty, increased diabetes risk, hyperactivity, and certain cancers. Because of these findings, the Canadian government has banned all baby bottles made with BPA. Freaked out a little? So were we. Because it can be downright scary and confusing to digest these health risks (especially amid conflicting statements from the plastics industry), we tapped expert researchers to understand the real deal. Here, answers to your major concerns:
Q. Why the sudden bad rap for bottles?
A. Here's what we know for sure: BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical found in hard, clear plastic baby bottles; over time, it can seep into the containers and into your baby's milk. Here's what we don't know: "We haven't yet found definitive long-term health consequences in people," says Rebecca Roberts, PhD, an associate professor of biology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, who studies BPA. Yet there are enough tangible risks -- especially for young babies and children, because they're still developing -- to be concerned. "I'm a mom too, and I believe it's important to balance your lifestyle with what the science says," Roberts says. "I can't say that my kid lives a completely BPA-free life, but I can minimize her contact."
Q. How can I tell if the bottles we use contain BPA?
A. Flip them over, says Roberts. Often, polycarbonate plastics -- the ones that contain BPA -- are marked by the recycling symbols #7 or PC. But the absence of these marks is not a guarantee of safety -- if the bottle is hard and clear, check with the manufacturer to be sure.
Q. What can I do to reduce my baby's exposure?
A. Consider BPA-free alternatives, like glass or softer, cloudy-looking plastic bottles (check out our finds below). "And if you are using bottles made with BPA, try not to microwave them or put them in the dishwasher," says Roberts, since heat can break down the plastic and trigger the chemicals to leach more readily. Also, toss bottles when they start to look scratched -- another sign of plastic degrading. According to one recent report, BPA may leach after as few as 50 to100 washings.
Q. Are there any other sources of BPA that could affect my baby?
A. There is some evidence that BPA is found in the lining of metal cans, including ready-to-feed formula. "To lessen the risk, it's best to opt for powdered formula, which is usually not sold in metal cans," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, an analyst at the Environmental Working Group. In a paper separate from the NIEHS study, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit found detected some BPA in liquid formula packaged in steel cans from companies including Enfamil and Similac. (Even though powdered formula containers may look like they're metal, most are actually made from a very stiff paperboard material). But if you're not sure whether your container is safe, then hold a magnet up to it, says Lunder. "If it sticks, then the can is metal and you should try to avoid it."
Q. I'm pregnant. Should I be worried about BPA?
A. BPA isn't just a baby bottles issue, says Phillip Landrigan, MD, a Parents advisory board member and a professor of pediatrics and community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "The chemical can cross the placenta, so if you're exposed during pregnancy, there's a chance it can impact your developing fetus." The best ways to protect your health while you're expecting: Avoid heating and dishwashing food containers made from polycarbonate (flip the storage container and look for the recycling symbols #1, #2, or #5 instead -- all safer forms of plastic) and Nalgene water bottles. "Luckily, BPA is not everywhere," says Roberts. "And there are plastic alternatives that are totally fine for moms and babies to use."
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