DALLAS (MCT) In the past month, the debate about one of the most commonly used chemicals in America has moved quickly from biotech experts and government regulators to moms and dads shopping in their neighborhood grocery stores.
Bisphenol A, also called BPA, can be found in hard plastics such as those used for some baby bottles, in the linings of most food cans and, if government tests are right, in the urine of most Americans.
The argument about health effects, particularly with children's development, showed up last week in a congressional committee, with regulators standing by current safety standards and critics accusing the government of ignoring evidence of potential harm.
Nancy D'Amico already has made up her mind. She arrived last week at a Babies "R" Us certain she wanted to buy nothing that had BPA.
"I'm one of those paranoid moms," said D'Amico, shopping with her 4-month-old son, Luca. "I know he's going to be exposed to things that are going to be out of my control. But it's good to control the things I am aware of."
While industry officials continue to say the science shows that their products are safe, other researchers say that BPA is an estrogenlike substance that may affect fetuses and children, even in very small amounts. Those reports are quickly changing shopping habits of people such as D'Amico.
Babies "R" Us features a long, high wall stocked with hundreds of baby bottles and nipples. It takes a "Where's Waldo"-style search for the relatively few labeled "BPA-free."
Soon, that search will be much easier. Toys "R" Us, which owns Babies "R" Us, has said it will eliminate baby bottles and other baby-feeding products containing BPA by the end of the year.
"While the FDA has not changed its position on the safety of products made with bisphenol-A (BPA), in light of growing consumer concerns on this topic, the company has been working with manufacturers to phase out all baby bottles and other baby feeding products containing BPA in its stores nationwide," Toys "R" Us said.
Other major retailers, including Wal-Mart and REI, also are responding to customer demands by eliminating some plastic products with BPA.
BPA has been used for more than 60 years as the essential ingredient in hard, clear and strong polycarbonate plastic. It also is used to make epoxy coatings sticky and durable, and is used in the U.S. in linings found inside cans from tomato sauce to soda. It's also found in dental sealants, printer ink, lenses and many plastic car parts.
Industry scientists and the federal Food and Drug Administration say the material is safe, and they back up their claims with several large animal studies funded by the chemical industry.
But for more than a decade, a growing number of independent scientists have reported different experimental results. They say that mere traces of BPA tiny amounts that are finding their way into what we eat and drink may adversely affect the development of fetuses and children, and may even fuel some cancers that afflict adults, such as breast and prostate cancers.
Last month, a federal panel charged with evaluating the evidence said that it had "some concern" about the effects of BPA exposure on fetuses, infants and children. A similar Canadian panel issued a harsher assessment, suggesting that the material be declared a toxin. And the Canadian government announced its intent to ban in 60 days all baby bottles that use BPA.
But last week, a senior FDA official told a congressional subcommittee that a "large body of available evidence indicates that food contact materials containing BPA currently on the market are safe."
The response of Target stores is typical of how some retail businesses are reacting: "While Target has no immediate plans to eliminate BPA, we are monitoring this issue and our assortments will continue to reflect the changing marketplace and our guests' preferences."
The consequence is that the plastics industry is cranking out BPA-free alternatives. New versions of baby bottles and sport water bottles already are showing up on store shelves, with more on the way.
Other companies, including Dallas-based Pennco Containers, are even offering alternatives to the polycarbonate 5-gallon jugs used in many water coolers.
BPA in cans isn't as much of a concern for many people. Roy Beard, owner of Roy's Natural Market in Dallas, said he's still waiting for the scientific debate about BPA to settle down.
"At this particular time, I wouldn't have the slightest idea where you'd find a supplier that doesn't use it," he said.
U.S. can industry spokesmen say that that they can offer no suitable alternatives for several years. Some Japanese can makers, however, have been using alternative linings for at least a decade.
All of which is leading an increasing number of consumers to take matters in their own hands.
Even before her baby arrived, Michelle Freeze was learning about BPA from her obstetrician/gynecologist and from a baby book.
"All the stuff on our registry we made sure was BPA-free," said Freeze, who was shopping at an area Babies "R" Us with her husband and their 6-day-old daughter, Evie.
Canned foods, though, hadn't popped up on her radar.
"There are so many foods in cans. What are you going to do? Stop buying canned foods?" Freeze said.
She paused for a moment. "Maybe we will."