The City Council's vote Wednesday to make Chicago the first U.S. city to ban bisphenol A in baby bottles and sippy cups is the latest act in a groundswell of public concern about a widely used chemical that has been linked to cancer, diabetes and other ailments.
With retailers and manufacturers already phasing out use of BPA, the unanimous vote is largely symbolic. But it adds the city to a growing list of states and countries moving to eliminate the chemical from household products, especially those made for infants and children.
Minnesota adopted a similar ban last week, and lawmakers in Illinois and several other states are considering their own measures.
Chicago's action puts it at odds with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which insists that the small amount of BPA in containers isn't dangerous. Industry officials cited the FDA's position when they tried to block the city's measure this week.
But scientists increasingly are concerned that constant exposure to the chemical is harmful, even at low doses leaching from plastic. BPA has been found in 93 percent of Americans tested, with the highest levels in the youngest infants.
Responding to public pressure, many retailers, including Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and CVS, already have vowed to stop selling bottles and containers made with BPA. Some manufacturers, including the nation's leading baby-bottle makers, also have started to market products labeled as "BPA-free."
For that reason, the strength of Chicago's action may be mostly in the message it sends. But its backers noted that it calls on the Daley administration to enforce the ban and disputed that most makers of baby bottles have voluntarily stopped using BPA.
"The FDA continues to be recalcitrant and very slow about taking any action on BPA," said Ald. Manny Flores (1st), who co-sponsored the Chicago measure with Ald. Edward Burke (14th).
BPA was developed as a synthetic hormone more than a century ago. Starting in the 1950s, industry adopted it to make hard, clear plastic and secured an FDA ruling that it was safe for use in food and drink containers.
Chicago's ordinance bans the sale after 2010 of any empty food or drink container containing BPA that is intended for use by children less than 3 years old. Burke and Flores pushed the measure through after backing down from a more aggressive version that would have outlawed nearly any product for children that was made with the chemical.
Still, the chemical industry fought hard to thwart the scaled-back ban, including hiring former Ald. Terry Gabinski (32nd) to lobby against it. The American Chemistry Council trade group responded with a written statement that called Wednesday's vote "unwarranted."
"We have and will continue to develop scientific data to inform credible, transparent scientific assessments of BPA so that the public can have the confidence it deserves in the safety of these products," it read.
When the FDA ruled last summer that BPA is safe, it ignored advice from its scientific advisory board that urged the agency to rely on more than two studies financed by the chemical industry. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that entire sections of the FDA's decision were written by manufacturers with a financial stake in BPA.
Hundreds of other studies have linked the chemical to breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. The harmful effects appear to start early in life, when small doses of BPA, a synthetic estrogen, subtly wreak havoc on the developing bodies of fetuses and young children.
"The science is very clear: We can't say this chemical is safe," said Laura Vandenberg, a developmental biologist at Tufts University who has been studying BPA.
Canada last year became the first country to ban BPA in baby bottles. A more sweeping measure introduced last month in Congress would prohibit the sale of all food and drink containers made with the chemical.
Mayor Richard Daley, who had declined to take a position on the Chicago ordinance, said he doubted that city officials would have to enforce it.
"It just sends a message out," Daley said. "Companies are not going to violate it."
Burke and other supporters compared the BPA ban to a city ordinance adopted in the early 1970s outlawing phosphate detergents, which had been blamed for foul-smelling algae blooms that choked lakes and rivers.
But the Tribune reported in 2007 that dishwasher soap made with phosphates still dominated supermarket shelves across the city. State lawmakers later stepped in and banned all but trace amounts of the chemicals in detergents as of summer 2010.