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Assembly delays vote on infant health safety measure

Legislators weigh ban on BPA, a compound found in baby bottles and infant formula containers.

September 10, 2009|Margot Roosevelt

The California Assembly put off a final vote on whether to ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and infant formula and baby food containers Wednesday after an emotional debate over children's safety.

The measure, favored by a 35-31 vote, twice fell short of 41 necessary for passage. It was scheduled to come up for another vote today.

A ferocious lobbying battle over the legislation pitted public health and education groups against chemical, pharmaceutical and packaging giants, and was closely watched around the nation amid similar movements to ban the chemical.

More than 200 peer-reviewed studies on animals and humans have linked BPA to health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, liver problems, brain damage, cancer and hormone disruption. The chemical can accumulate in the human body after leaching into food and beverages from hard plastic containers, especially when heated, and from the epoxy lining of metal cans.

"Babies as we all know, are very little, very helpless and very dependent," Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) told the Assembly. "Their body weights cannot tolerate toxins at the rates adults can."

Opponents argued, however, that the bill would undermine the state's 2008 green chemistry law, which established a scientific process to prioritize substances that should be restricted or eliminated.

The original BPA bill, sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) would have banned BPA outright. It was amended in the Assembly to allow time for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to decide whether to regulate the compound under the green chemistry law.

"It gives them two years to act," said Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills). "They could decide it is completely safe and it would preempt this ban."

Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the bill and several Democrats, including Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, also opposed it. "Let's leave this to the scientists," Solorio said, arguing that infant formula companies could not comply with the bill.

Opponents also argued that BPA is safe because a state Environmental Protection Agency committee in July declined to label it as causing cancer or reproductive toxicity under California's Proposition 65. The committee examined only prenatal exposure, and has been criticized for long delays in labeling toxic substances.

The outcome of the vote will hinge on a handful of Southern California Democrats who did not vote last night, including Charles Calderon of Montebello, Hector De La Torre of South Gate, Warren Furutani of Gardena, Edward Hernandez of West Covina, Tony Mendoza of Artesia, V. Manuel Perez of Coachella and Norma Torres of Pomona.

Limited bans have been enacted in Canada, as well as Connecticut and Minnesota, and in several cities, including Chicago. Congress and about 20 other states are considering restrictions.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration delayed taking action on BPA, saying that its levels did not pose a threat, but members of Congress accused the agency of allowing undue industry influence on its deliberations.

It is now reexamining the evidence and is expected to issue a decision in November.

California legislators have been wrestling with BPA since 2005, when a bill to ban the substance was first introduced. Last year, a ban passed the Senate but was narrowly defeated in the Assembly amid a $4.7-million lobbying and advertising campaign by industry opponents warning that common consumer goods would disappear if it passed.

The market, however, has already begun to change. Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods have announced that they are phasing out baby products with BPA. And some infant formula is sold in packages labeled BPA-free.

Several legislators, including Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) said that failing to ban BPA statewide would leave their low-income constituents at a disadvantage if they did not have access to BPA-free alternatives. "It's unfair," he said. "In low-income neighborhoods, they don't sell those products."

Opponents of the legislation included BPA manufacturers Dow and Sabic Innovative Plastics, as well as infant formula makers Abbott, Nestle and Mead Johnson.

More than 60 groups endorsed a ban, including the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, and Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

Five counties, including Los Angeles, supported the bill. And this year for the first time, public health groups were joined by the California Teachers Assn. and the California Labor Council.

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margot.roosevelt@latimes.com

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