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The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products: Latest Scare Isn't the Last

Parents should be able to buy a baby bottle without worrying about health hazards. That standard requires a change in the system.

by
David Wallinga and Lindsay Dahl

Last month, within a day of each other, Wal-Mart promised to stop carrying baby bottles with bisphenol-A (BPA) -- a toxic chemical that has received recent attention -- and Nalgene announced it will stop making its signature water bottles from the unsafe plastic. Toys 'R' Us and Babies 'R' Us have also have jumped on the bandwagon, agreeing to carry only BPA-free products by the end of this year.

The swift action from leading retailers came after the Canadian government labeled BPA as toxic. The science shows us that low-dose exposure to the toxic chemical may be linked to obesity, diabetes, breast cancer and other diseases, as well as early onset of puberty.

These health effects concerned Sen. Sandy Rummel, DFL-White Bear Lake, and Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, and spurred them to author a bill that would provide a sigh of relief for worried parents. The Safe Baby Products bill would phase out BPA and another hard-to-pronounce toxic chemical, phthalates, from children's products.

Wouldn't it be nice to go into any store in Minnesota and know that any baby bottle for sale there is safe?

The shifting market for toxic plastic comes just months after the explosion of recalls due to lead-painted toys and lead-contaminated vinyl in children's toys, lunchboxes and other products. What's going on?

Each of these announcements signals a much larger problem with the U.S. government's oversight of chemicals used in everyday consumer goods. "[T]he U.S. regulatory system for toxic industrial chemicals is not effective and is a threat to public health," says Donald Kennedy, the former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and current editor of Science.

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It's not just a question of a few errant baby bottles.

Industry has tried to make "regulation" a dirty word. But regulation often is necessary to protect public health, particularly the health of children who cannot advocate for themselves. Kids are exposed to various chemicals, starting in the womb, and recent testing shows that every one of us has significant levels of these chemicals in our bodies.

Consumers are now burdened with finding safe products for their children. While some retailers carry only the safer products, parents should be able to go into any store and be assured that the baby bottles and sippy cups and toys do not contain synthetic hormones or heavy metals like lead. Sadly, such assurance is lacking.

That's why this isn't the last we'll hear about unsafe children's products. We will have more recalls in the months and years to come. We have a broken system, and we will have to change the way the government regulates chemicals before we can be sure the products we buy for our children and families are safe.

In the interim, states are picking up where the federal government has failed to protect public health and started to target the phase-out of the most toxic chemicals in consumer products. Minnesota legislators can act swiftly to eliminate bisphenol-A from children's products by voting in favor of the Safe Baby Products Bill. Consumers and parents should expect no less.

David Wallinga, M.D., is director of food and health at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Lindsay Dahl is coordinator for the Healthy Legacy, a statewide coalition of 29 organizations dedicated to "safe products, made safely."

© 2008 Star Tribune

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