January 17, 2013

Maine board backs ban on BPA in baby-food packaging

If adopted by the Legislature, Maine would be the third state to impose BPA bans that exceed federal standards.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Maine's Board of Environmental Protection took a preliminary vote Thursday to ban sales of baby food and infant formula in containers made with the chemical additive bisphenol-A.

If approved in a final vote and adopted by the Legislature, the initiative will make Maine the third state to impose BPA bans that exceed federal standards.

The board's unanimous action was prompted by a citizens petition, submitted in June, that also sought to ban toddler food packaged in containers with BPA. The board did not endorse that ban because of concerns about identifying which foods are aimed at children younger than 3.

Samantha DePoy-Warren, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the department would need expert help to define toddler foods, leaving uncertainty for manufacturers and consumers.

BEP Chairman Robert Foley said at Thursday's meeting that the ban "would be difficult, if not impossible, for the department to enforce."

The board is scheduled to take a final vote on Jan. 24 before sending the matter to the Legislature.

"We're thrilled that the board decided to take action and get BPA out of infant formula and baby food," said Amanda Sears, associate director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, part of an alliance that supported the petition. "That's absolutely the right decision."

Democratic leaders in the Legislature cheered the ruling.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said in a prepared statement that he will submit a bill to support the BEP's proposed ban.

"It's clear the Legislature has to continue our work to protect older children as well," Goodall said. "For example, we need to clarify certain words and definitions such as 'toddler food' so that the (board) can continue its good work of keeping our families out of harm's way from toxic chemicals."

House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, also voiced his support, saying, "This action taken by the Board of Environmental Protection is an important additional step towards keeping our children safe from clearly harmful chemicals."

A DEP staff report said 92 percent of baby-food manufacturers that responded to the state's inquiries said they have removed or are taking steps to remove BPA from packaging. It also said that studies show it's unclear if BPA used in baby food lids comes into contact with food.

"There needs to be proof of exposure and proof of safe alternatives," said DePoy-Warren of the DEP. "We really need irrefutable evidence, and we don't think that's there with baby food."

But at Thursday's meeting, M. Wing Goodale, a board member from Falmouth, noted that Gerber, the nation's largest maker of baby food, has moved to eliminate BPA from packaging. A document filed by petitioners says it uses alternatives like aseptic containers.

Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, a board member from Yarmouth, said scientific evidence, including some showing that the chemical leaches from containers into food products, was enough to get her to support the ban in infant-formula and baby-food packaging.

"I would like to see it removed from everything else, and I can make that choice by what I'm choosing to purchase, but that's not what's in front of us," she said.

Earlier this month, the DEP staff outraged a group of mothers organized by the alliance when it did not support the ban in toddler-food or baby-food containers.

One of those mothers, Megan Rice, 36, of China, said she hopes that the state can soon clarify a definition of toddler food. But she was encouraged by the board's action Thursday.

"I definitely feel like we're moving in the right direction," Rice said. "I'm doing it for my kids, so I'm committed until the end."

Studies have linked BPA to health problems, including developmental problems, cancer and diabetes. It's a chemical known to exhibit hormone-like properties, mimicking estrogen. It's used as an additive in some plastic bottles and food packaging.

The federal Food and Drug Administration's current stance on BPA is "scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe."

But in July, the FDA banned the chemical from baby bottles and sippy cups. The FDA said that wasn't a reflection on the chemical's safety, and it said the administration still deemed it safe in food products.

In Maine, BPA has not been allowed in baby bottles, sippy cups and other reusable food and beverage containers since 2010. The new bans covering baby food and infant formula couldn't take effect before Aug. 15, said Kerri Malinowski, who manages the law for the DEP.

If the bans are adopted, Maine will join Connecticut and Vermont in banning BPA in those products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gov. Paul LePage has expressed skepticism that BPA is harmful, saying he's in step with the federal government.

In 2011, he said the worst effect from BPA exposure could be that "some women may have little beards" because of the chemical's estrogen-mimicking effects.

LePage addressed the chemical in a media briefing last week, saying, "By banning it just here in Maine and not the rest of the country, we're doing the same thing we've been doing to ourselves for years: We make ourselves less competitive -- more costly.

"If there is a scientific reason to take BPA off the shelves, I will support it," he said.

House Republican spokesman David Sorensen said that since it's still early in the process, Republicans will wait for legislators to research the issue thoroughly before responding.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the decision on BPA "should be made on the basis of science and not politics." He said he wants to see language presented to the Legislature before coming down on one side or the other.

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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