The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Tuesday "banned" the compound bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles and toddler sippy cups and it's a pleasure to say how clearly this mostly political action was explained in the resulting media coverage.
As The New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise pointed out in her story: "Manufacturers have already stopped using the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups, and the F.D.A. said that its decision was a response to a request by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade association, that rules allowing BPA in those products be phased out, in part to boost consumer confidence."
The FDA also made a point of emphasizing that it continues to support "the safe use" of BPA. The material is still used, for instance, in the protective coating used to line metal cans that hold food products. While, advocacy groups have urged a total ban, based on studies that show it to be a potent endocrine disruptor, the agency said that the body of evidence does not suggest that BPA poses a significant health risk.
Given the somewhat Orwellian nature of Tuesday's action - a government agency banning use of a compound in products that is not used in those products - journalists sought to explain its meaning. Bill Tomson reported in The Wall Street Journal that the chemistry council pushed for the action to "do away with confusion" over whether baby products still contained BPA.
A CBS/AP version of the story noted that action may head off other proposals for more extensive regulation of the plastic-hardening compound. Others suggested that the FDA action might reduce the chorus of complaint from advocacy groups. But as a Huffington Post report by Matthew Perrone noted, activists remain unimpressed: "Once again the FDA has come so late to the party that the public and the marketplace have already left," said Jason Rano of the Environmental Working Group.
At NPR's The Salt, Jon Hamilton began by noting that "it's been years" since manufacturers quit using BPA in infant and toddler bottles and cups. He went on to look at the FDA action in terms of the ongoing controversy. Hamilton's balanced piece also provided a clear summary not only of consumer worries but of research results that support the FDA position on the low-risk nature of BPA.
In other words, from the agency position, the "ban" has politics behind it and industry interest but no convincing science. And given that conclusion, as I said, it's a pleasure to see journalists put the decision into the somewhat dubious context that it deserves.
--- Deborah Blum