Waiting for Supermom: The FDA’s Failure on BPA

Credit: Darren Higgins

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, On Earth, 4/18/2012.

When the New York Times ran a snarky story under a picture of my daughter, Maya, a few weeks ago describing my efforts to rid my home of toxic chemicals, you can bet the comments from readers were merciless. Readers accused me of trying to keep my child in a bubble and mocked me as yet another privileged, neurotic helicopter mom.

Truth be told, instead of a posh housewife, for years I was a cash-strapped public interest lawyer who roamed the halls of Congress with brokenhearted families after some federal agency had failed to protect them. I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover tragedy and the discovery of lead in children’s toys from China, among other disasters for public health. So when I had my own child, it seemed important to think through the risks to her health for myself.

Still, the pointed comments got me thinking: are moms, and parents generally, bad or good at predicting risks to children? I’ve decided that while parents might not be perfect, we’re a good sight better than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Contrary to stereotype, moms (and dads) are actually expert risk assessors. In fact, it’s no overstatement to say that risk assessment is a major part of the job. Parents constantly measure both the benefits and risks to their child, of say, crossing the street, eating that suspect ball-park hot dog, going to summer camp, or even, as at my house, playing on our splinter-filled back deck (allowed, but shoes required).

On the other hand, we have the FDA. Eleven states, and at least eight countries, including Canada, China, and the European Union, have already banned Bisphenol-A — a dangerous chemical added to plastic food containers and can linings — in some or all products. Hoping to head off more comprehensive rules, the chemical industry in the U.S. even asked regulators last September for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.

Nonetheless, the FDA recently decided to keep exposing all of us to BPA, which shows up in the urine of 93 percent of Americans. This was a big step backward from the agency’s public position in 2010, which said that BPA was of “some concern” with regard to health impacts like early puberty and prostate cancer. That statement was based on a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program, which concluded that there is “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.”

Four long years later (a period which included the birth of my daughter in 2010), the FDA’s disappointing decision to punt left in its wake a dizzying array of contradictory messages for the public on the safety of BPA. While FDA said that its recent decision was not a final determination and that it would continue to study the issue, the chemical industry’s flacks said the decision meant that BPA “is safe for use in food-contact materials.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, states that “[i]t is clear that the government… need[s] more research to better understand the potential human health effects of exposure to BPA, especially when it comes to the impact of BPA exposure on young children.” HHS also provides recommendations to parents about “minimizing BPA exposure,” including helpful information on BPA levels in various types of containers for infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding. This is in marked contrast to the cursory, lame non-guidance from the FDA, which states “FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods.”

Really? No changes? It’s shocking that in the face of health concerns that even the government has acknowledged, FDA won’t provide a shred of guidance for pregnant women and parents about how to minimize exposure for their baby. How about the obvious: families should avoid baby bottles with BPA in them, ready-to-use formulas and baby foods with BPA in the lining of lids, and canned foods with a BPA lining. Or that pregnant women, like the one working the cash register at my local café last week, should avoid handling receipts and money, which have been shown to be covered in unbound BPA?

In the face of such indifference to the risks, I’ll just point out the clear superiority of parents as deciders. In fact, parents generally make balanced — and protective — choices, weighing both benefits and risks. Kids can’t and shouldn’t live in a bubble, sure, so parents do the best they can with the information that they have. But when they think about the downsides, they also make a very precise accounting, a moral and ethical accounting, you might say, that reflects the place in their heart occupied by their own child.

Parents everywhere take note: this kind of protective approach should also be the yardstick used by government when it assesses the risks to its citizens. When I worked on the Ford-Firestone rollover disaster, accompanying the mother of a dead 18-year-old boy to her senator’s office to argue for more protective auto safety rules, what she expressed most poignantly, besides the devastating impact of her loss, was her profound, tragic heartbreak that she “didn’t know” about this risk — that she “didn’t know” that the government would allow things to be sold that were unsafe — that she assumed, in fact, that government would view the life and health of her child in the same loving, protective way she did.

If only it were so. When the FDA and White House play politics with our health and lives, when regulators admit a chemical in our food supply is unsafe yet refuse to even offer adequate guidelines for parents to protect their babies and children, and when a potential threat to our health is so impossible to avoid, we need a new, and far better, ethic for assessing risks and the safety of families.

We should enact laws that require products to be proven to be safe before our children and families can be exposed. And in the case of FDA, we shouldn’t tolerate these ridiculous waiting games. The agency should meet its legal obligation to protect the public from chemicals that can reach our food supply and have not been proven to be safe. That would be a government that only a mother could love.