How to feed the baby? Plastic worries parents

Times Staff Writer

New parents across America are taking a second look at a playpen staple of the 1950s: glass baby bottles.

Replaced long ago in most U.S. households by unbreakable plastic, glass bottles are making a comeback prompted by worries about a chemical used in making the plastic.

When Amber Rickert of Los Angeles first heard that a chemical might be leaching from plastic baby bottles, she felt sick -- and immediately bought glass bottles.

“For me, it was like a total no-brainer. I didn’t even think about it twice,” said Rickert, 34, who got wind of the subject from Booby Brigade, an online bulletin board for mothers. “A bunch of women are switching.”


A report called “Toxic Baby Bottles” released in February by a Los Angeles environmental advocacy group helped fuel new interest. Afterward, business soared at websites selling glass bottles and prices jumped on EBay. Evenflo Co., a maker of glass and plastic baby bottles, saw a surprise surge in demand for glass.

“It really caught us unawares,” said John Geleynse, owner of Lamby Nursery Collection, a baby products distributor in Washington state that ran out of glass bottles two months ago and doesn’t know when it will get another shipment.

At issue is bisphenol A, or BPA. It is used in making hard polycarbonate plastic, which is clear and shatterproof. The chemical is used to make plastic baby bottles, microwave cookware, food packaging and many other products.

BPA can leach from polycarbonate plastic, but whether that poses any harm to humans is hotly debated. Federal regulators have taken no action to restrict use of BPA, which is found in most people’s blood, and the plastics industry says it is safe.

San Francisco last year banned the chemical in products for children younger than 3 but recently decided to hold off as the state considered the matter. A state legislative committee considered a bill to restrict BPA’s use but decided this month to wait for more study results.

Mary Brune, the founder of Making Our Milk Safe, an Alameda-based group with 500 members nationwide, called the recent alert about BPA “an outrage and a call to action.”

“We’re talking about baby bottles, something that’s giving nourishment to your child,” she said. “Nothing’s more basic than that.”

Orders for glass bottles from upset parents poured in to Natural Baby, an online store, after the report in February. “It was just a nightmare,” General Manager Jennifer Thames said. “You would not believe some of the customers -- how angry they were.”

The report also helped boost business for Born Free, an online company that sells “BPA-free” plastic and glass bottles.

But Tonya Lafontaine has given up on baby bottles altogether.

The Aliso Viejo resident breast-fed both of her children but used to leave her breast milk in a plastic bottle with the baby sitter when she went out, a practice she abandoned after reading about the plastic bottles.

“I decided I would rather take my child with me everywhere I went than introduce him to something toxic,” said Lafontaine, 36, who didn’t trust glass bottles because she questioned the safety of the nipples.

“Now I’m just kind of freaked out about plastic,” said Lafontaine, who works from home as an information technology executive but says “mommy” is her main job. “I decided it was best to just throw everything out.”

The use of bisphenol A in children’s products has become fiercely contentious.

BPA mimics the sex hormone estrogen, and in tests on animal fetuses and animal newborns, low doses caused reproductive harm, including damage that can lead to prostate disease, breast cancer and birth defects. Many scientists suspect that the chemical can have similar effects on humans, though this has not been proved.

A lawsuit was filed recently in Los Angeles against a group of grocery stores and bottle makers on behalf of a 5-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area. The attorney said the boy suffered harm to his reproductive system related to the use of plastic bottles.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, is aimed at forcing companies to disclose on packaging and bottles that the plastic contains the chemical and that it can leach into the liquid.

“They know quite well that people will not purchase the item when they’ve been appropriately informed of the dangers of it,” said Jon Eardley, an attorney for the child. He said there had been no response from the other side.

The baby bottle report in February was released by Environment California Research and Policy Center in Los Angeles. It said that lab tests showed that the bottles leached bisphenol A “at dangerous levels found to cause harm in numerous animal studies.”

The report said the plastic broke down with use, allowing the chemical to leach into the liquid. Five popular bottle brands were selected for testing: Avent, Evenflo, Playtex, Gerber and Dr. Brown’s. All leached the chemical, the report said.

“When this story broke, we got more e-mails and phone calls than we’ve ever gotten from concerned parents asking what to do,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California.

But a representative for the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., said many studies had upheld the safety of products made with BPA.

“It’s unfortunate that Environment California is scaring parents about the safety of polycarbonate bottles,” Steve Hentges said. “The scientific evidence supports the use of these bottles.”

Studies regarding BPA leaching have been done for at least 20 years, he said. At issue, he said, is how much the chemical leaches, and whether it is harmful.

“All of these studies have been evaluated by government bodies around the world,” Hentges said. “Based on those evaluations, polycarbonate baby bottles are accepted as safe for use around the world.”

Many parents know nothing about BPA. Some express vague worries that there’s a problem with plastic, but they say they don’t know how seriously to take the reports about baby bottles.

One mother said she already had enough to worry about with pollution and global warming.

Marni O’Dell, a mother of three from Irvine, said she hadn’t even heard of glass baby bottles. But she didn’t like the idea.

“That’s insane,” said the 35-year-old stay-at-home mom. “It doesn’t seem right to put glass in a baby’s hands.”

But switching makes sense to Charles Finlay, whose wife is expecting next month. The Chico, Calif., couple bought plastic bottles but decided not to use them after reading about the latest report. “I had glass bottles when I was a kid,” Finlay said.

Some people say they’d switch to glass bottles -- if they could find them.

A spokeswoman for Babies “R” Us said the chain’s sales of glass baby bottles escalated after the February report was released but had leveled off somewhat. “There’s still been a lift, but it’s primarily in California,” Kathleen Waugh said.

Baby Supermall, an online baby bottle seller, quickly sold out of glass bottles after the report was released, President Bob Meier said.

“Suddenly, women got very desperate to get these things,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t die off because we loaded up.”

Times staff writer Marla Cone contributed to this report.