Caution is the right reaction to chemical

Maybe you've seen the ad showing an empty shopping cart in the middle of the desert. "Soon, many common, everyday products could disappear from grocery store shelves all across California," it warns.

That would be pretty ominous, if it were true.

Which it is not.

The ad campaign by the American Chemistry Council is targeting a bill in Sacramento that would ban use of a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA, in products such as baby bottles and sippy cups used by children under 3.

The bill -- SB 1713, spearheaded by state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) -- passed the Senate in May and is expected to come before the Assembly this week.

BPA helps make plastic stronger and helps prevent canned foods and beverages from spoiling.

The National Institutes of Health says there is "some concern" that exposing small children to BPA "can cause changes in behavior and the brain, prostate gland, mammary gland, and the age at which females attain puberty."

"Some concern" falls midway between "serious concern" and "negligible concern" on the agency's five-level scale.

"The possibility that bisphenol A may impact human development cannot be dismissed," the agency concluded.

Amid such concerns, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Toys R Us have announced they will phase out baby bottles containing BPA.

Nalgene, manufacturer of those ubiquitous water bottles used by hikers and athletes, also said it would eliminate BPA in its products.

"BPA can't be unharmful if industry is going out of its way to remove it," Migden told me. "These aren't charitably minded corporations. They're thinking about their bottom line."

Her legislation, she said, is intended to create a uniform safety standard in California so that all containers intended for kids are BPA-free.

That's not how the chemical industry sees it. The American Chemistry Council, the industry's leading trade group, has run ads in newspapers, online and on the radio denouncing Migden's bill as an all-out assault on consumer choice in the supermarket.

About half a dozen companies produce BPA in the United States, including Dow Chemical Co. and Bayer Corp.

"At a time of rising food prices, limiting consumer choice is unfair and unnecessary," the organization said in mailers to hundreds of thousands of California homes.

This is misleading.

Migden's bill would ban manufacturing, selling or distributing any commercial container "designed or intended to be filled with any liquid, food or beverage primarily for consumption from that container by infants or children 3 years of age or younger."

In other words, it wouldn't affect any product intended primarily for anyone over 3, which is nearly all products in supermarkets.

What it would affect, other than sippy cups and baby bottles, is cans of formula and the lids of baby-food jars, which are lined with BPA. And that's pretty much it.

The bill reiterates its age cutoff several times. But Migden amended the legislation last week to emphasize that it wouldn't apply to "food and beverage containers designed or intended primarily to contain liquid, food or beverages for consumption by the general population."

The chemical industry took this as a validation of its position.

"It shows that the bill was pretty vague," said Tim Shestek, director of California state affairs for the American Chemistry Council. "If we were overstepping in our ads, why did Sen. Migden amend the bill?"

Migden replied that she added the language to counter the organization's ads.

"I did it because the highly deceptive campaign made claims that the bill would impact the general population," she said. "I wanted to make clear that this isn't the case."

The chemical industry also questioned the science behind the legislation. Steve Hentges, who oversees BPA matters for the Chemistry Council and has a doctorate in chemistry, said it's easy for parents to be alarmed by the National Institutes of Health having "some concern" about the effect of BPA on kids.

"But that's different from their having 'serious concern,' " he said. "There's 'some concern' about everything."

Hentges pointed out that the European Food Safety Authority recently took a closer look at BPA and concluded that the chemical poses no threat to people, including kids. "In Europe, this isn't really a big deal," he said.

In Canada, on the other hand, it apparently is. In April, Canada became the first country to ban BPA from baby bottles.

"We have immediately taken action on bisphenol A because we believe it is our responsibility to ensure families, Canadians and our environment are not exposed to a potentially harmful chemical," Tony Clement, the Canadian minister of health, said in a statement.

In any case, this is the United States, not Europe or Canada. The fact that U.S. authorities have found at least some risk that BPA could be harmful to children should be sufficient reason to act.

Hentges said that although some manufacturers and retailers are moving away from BPA in bottles, it's not clear what chemical could replace BPA as a liner for formula cans and baby-food lids.

Migden said her bill would give businesses until 2012 to come up with something. The legislation specifies only that "the least toxic alternative" must be used, which would seem to provide plenty of wiggle room.

"If there's a good chance this is a harmful substance, would it not be the best course of action to eliminate it?" Migden asked.

Most parents already know the answer.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesday and Sunday. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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