Reporting the BPA ban in Chicago in bits and pieces.

Posted by Paul Eubig, DVM at May 14, 2009 04:30 PM |

Not many cities have two newspapers, let alone one, anymore. So reading reports on the same issue – banning sale of products containing bisphenol A – in different publications – the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune – allows for an interesting juxtaposition.

For this case, both newspapers covered the Chicago City Council’s preliminary deliberations over a proposal to ban the sale of empty food and drink containers made with BPA that are intended for use in children under 3 years of age.

Although the recent US Food and Drug Administration decision declared BPA-containing products, such as plastic baby bottles, as safe, there is an ever growing body of scientific evidence that argues otherwise.

BPA can leach from plastic products, especially if the containers are heated and/or scratched. The synthetic chemical mimics the hormone estrogen, which animal studies show can cause harmful effects in the brain and the reproductive system of the young and growing. Current studies are also examining the role of BPA in diseases such as diabetes and breast cancer in adults.

A May 11, Sun-Times article covered many important aspects of the issue, including that BPA has potentially harmful health effects, that Canada and the state of Minnesota already have similar bans and that banning BPA is a contentious issue.

The Tribune ran a very meager story on May 12. It did not discuss why the ban was proposed. It also failed to provide information about the health effects associated with BPA exposure and the historical perspective on the topic that the Sun-Times did.

However, on May 13, the Tribune revisited the topic with an editorial that offered more in-depth coverage than either of the previous stories. The editorial, while short, discussed the chemical's hormonal effects and the controversy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s position on BPA.

Although coverage was adequate in the papers, none of the reports addressed two other important points.

It would have been valuable for one of them to explain why the ban restricts the use of BPA in products meant only for children under age three. The reason is because many developmental processes that begin in the womb and continue through puberty are driven by hormones, with estrogen being a key player. Much of the scientific evidence against BPA's safety indicates the estrogenic effects of BPA are most likely to cause harmful effects during the most sensitive, very early years of life, when the brain and reproductive systems are rapidly growing. By limiting infants' and young children's exposure, the ban may lessen the chance that the most sensitive population will be exposed to BPA during a time when exposure may result in long-lasting effects on the brain and the reproductive organs.

Another important omission was the recent decision by Sunoco, one of the manufacturers of BPA. Companies that purchase BPA from Sunoco now need to guarantee they will not use it to manufacture children’s food containers. That decision is the first time that a BPA manufacturer acknowledged the possibility that BPA is not as safe as initial claims.

The hit and miss coverage shows that, sometimes, one has to go to more than one source to get a more complete story about a complicated issue.

(Note: It was announced today that the city-wide ban of BPA in plastics meant for children under 3 was approved. Both the Tribune and the Sun reported on that, too.)