As scientific evidence mounts against bisphenol-A, a chemical used in plastic baby bottles, soup cans and other containers, many states - including Maryland - are starting to take action to limit the chemical ahead of any federal regulation.
The states are responding to some scientists, consumer groups and now even federal officials who have been sounding alarms about the chemical better known as BPA, which has been linked to developmental disabilities in children and reproductive problems in women.
Minnesota and Connecticut, Chicago and four counties in New York have banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. Maryland is among 20 states that are considering legislation, according to the consumer group Maryland PIRG.
Del. James W. Hubbard, a Democrat from Prince George's County, has pushed BPA legislation in the state for years. On Friday, the House of Delegates passed a bill he sponsored by a vote of 137-0 that would prohibit manufacture, sale or distribution of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups intended for children younger than 4. The Senate recently held a hearing and might vote as soon as today on the bill, which would take effect in 2012.
Maryland and other states took a similar tack on higher fuel efficiency standards, which eventually led to federal action.
"Ideally this would be a subject addressed at the national level, but it hasn't been," said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who introduced the Senate BPA bill this year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's change in position last month "highlights the urgency of the problem," he said.
The FDA said the chemical, used for more than four decades in hard plastic food containers and the lining of metal food and soda cans, may be passed into food and beverages, and the agency expressed "concern" about its safety.
It was a reversal of a position taken in 2008, when the FDA said toxicology research showed BPA was safe.
In response, the Interagency Task Force on Children's Environmental Health was created to coordinate more research. The National Institutes of Health was given $30 million to foster research, and results are expected in 18 months to two years.
The studies "are intended to answer key questions and clarify uncertainties of the potential risks of BPA," Joshua Sharfstein, former Baltimore health commissioner and now principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, said in January when the effort was announced.
For now, the government recommends people reduce exposure to BPA, especially in young children, considered the most vulnerable.
Maryland and the other states have focused on baby bottles and sippy cups, rather than all the products that contain BPA. Consumer groups such as Maryland PIRG do want legislatures to address broader use, but these bills target what advocates say is the worst of the tens of thousands of chemicals that may enter the human body every year and the most vulnerable population.
"This is an important step," Johanna Neumann, Maryland PIRG state director, said of the legislation. "We're looking to see Maryland join the roster this year."
Neumann pointed to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 93 percent of Americans have measurable levels of BPA in their bodies and some 200 studies linking the chemical, which mimics estrogen, to harmful effects. Many people don't realize that BPA is found in hard plastic, metal can liners and even waxy store receipts, she said.
Groups including Consumers Union and the Natural Resources Defense Council are also working for changes in BPA regulation and to federal laws regulating chemicals in general.
As for BPA, the groups recommend consumers, especially pregnant women or those breastfeeding, avoid or limit plastic containers marked with a 3 or a 7 inside a triangle, along with vegetable and soda cans and some water bottles that are not made of stainless steel. Neumann said consumers should wash their hands after handling the receipts.
She and the other consumer advocates say glass can be substituted for baby bottles and other preserved-food containers. Consumers can also buy frozen bagged vegetables and boxed soups instead of canned. She said consumers can also look for products labeled BPA-free, though testing has shown some of those products still contain the chemical.
Some parents, such as Aimee Pohl, say they do their best to avoid BPA, but believe a ban is the only way for them to be sure. Pohl testified in favor of the Maryland legislation and asked lawmakers that if they could go back in time and ban lead many years earlier, before it poisoned countless children, would they do so?