WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday waded into an escalating scientific dispute over a controversial ingredient in plastic products that some think may harm the development of children's brains and interfere with human reproduction.
Members of a Senate consumer affairs subcommittee faulted federal agencies for reacting too slowly to concerns that children are exposed to bisphenol A, or BPA, through leaching from such items as water bottles, baby bottles and the linings of food and baby formula cans.
Senate Democrats demanded more independent research into the possible hazards of the estrogen-like compound and better labeling of products that include it.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pushed for legislation he has introduced to prohibit BPA in all products designed for and intended to be used by children age 7 and younger. The compound is used in the manufacture of polycarbonate, a rigid plastic, and epoxy resins.
"Congress should not gamble with our children's health," Schumer said. "If there's a significant chance that this can cause harm, particularly in children, then we ought to err on the side of caution."
The state Senate in Sacramento is expected to vote today on a bill by Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) that bans BPA in toys and child-care products sold in California.
Schumer's bill, cosponsored by both of California's senators, includes a provision preventing federal law from preempting, or overriding, any farther-reaching laws passed by state legislatures.
The Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for science, Norris Alderson, told the panel that the FDA did not recommend that consumers stop using food containers made with BPA.
The FDA's position is not set in stone, he said, but for now the level of BPA exposure seems "well below the levels that may cause health effects."
Last month, after an 18-month review, the National Institutes of Health's toxicology program concluded there was "some concern" that BPA could be harming the development of children's brains and reproductive organs.
In her testimony, Marilyn Wind of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's directorate of health sciences noted that companies used polycarbonate in a broad array of products, including eyeglass lenses and bicycle helmets. Restricting the use of the shatterproof plastic could result in less effective protection for children, she said.
She acknowledged that small amounts of BPA might be released when plastic or resin broke down. But once BPA enters food or water, she said, its regulation becomes the responsibility of the FDA and falls outside her commission's jurisdiction.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said consumers would be better off if product labels included information about BPA. That way, she said, they could choose alternatives like glass. That suggestion was supported by Elizabeth Hitchcock, public health advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group.
Steven G. Hentges, senior director of the American Chemistry Council's polycarbonate/BPA global group, said recent news reports had exaggerated concerns about BPA, which the trade group insists is safe.
The Senate hearing followed efforts by the European Union, Canada and some companies to phase out the use of potentially dangerous chemicals in plastics.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on consumer affairs, insurance and automotive safety, urged caution.
"We need to be careful in how we proceed, because if we're not careful, if we ban one thing, some other [chemical compound] may come on the market that may be even more hazardous, more dangerous," he said. "We just don't know."