When a bill to ban a common plastic additive in feeding products for young children passed the Assembly on July 1, it marked a milestone in state legislative efforts to regulate bisphenol A.
The ban's supporters point to studies linking the chemical, found in hard plastic containers such as baby bottles and in the lining of food and beverage cans, with numerous adverse health effects, especially in infants and young children.
The bill, SB 797, was defeated last year in the Assembly. In 2008, a similar bill written by another state senator also failed.
But Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, the bill's author, asked for another vote this year, and this time it passed 43-31. Mostly Republicans opposed it, along with a few Democrats, including Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont.
"I'm thrilled. This was a real David and Goliath fight," said Pavley, referring to what she called a battle over the bill with industry lobbyists.
It calls for a ban on the chemical by January 2012 in feeding products designed for children aged 3 and under, such as sippy cups, bottles and baby food jars. It also bans BPA in all infant formula starting July 2012.
The bill heads back the state Senate, where it already passed, for a reconciliation vote in August. If approved again there, it goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In the weeks ahead, Pavley's staff expects intense lobbying by industry groups opposed to the bill.
"They have waged a pitched battle to defeat this bill," said Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Pavley's office. "We certainly don't expect them to pack up their bags and head home."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food and beverage producers, is one of several groups opposing the bill. The association says there are no adequate alternatives to BPA, and that regulators for decades have concluded it's safe at average exposure levels.
"In January, the (Food and Drug Administration) affirmed these assessments and once again found that foods in cans with linings that utilize BPA are safe," the association wrote in a prepared statement.
A spokesman for the organization said that no one from its staff was available for comment, due to summer travel schedules.
This year, however, the FDA took a notable shift in its position.
For years, the agency held that exposures to the substance by adults and children were well below toxic levels. But in January, the agency said it has "some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children," which are at particular risk because they're rapidly developing.
After a review of more recent studies, the National Institutes of Health expressed concern that BPA exposure in infants may lead to problems with brain development and behavior, early puberty, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Other research suggests BPA can interfere with metabolism, increasing the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The FDA noted that it took a new look at BPA's health effects due to studies published in recent years showing harm at doses far lower than those previously considered safe by federal regulators.
The FDA plans to expand research on the chemical to address "substantial uncertainties" with existing studies. The NIH also has set aside $30 million to fund BPA research. Until results come in, the FDA is advising "reasonable steps" to reduce BPA exposure, such as encouraging manufacturers to find alternatives to the chemical.
But the FDA isn't going nearly far enough for advocates who point to mounting evidence of harm. In June, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the FDA, claiming the agency failed to respond in a timely way to its petition asking the agency to ban BPA.
BPA was invented in 1891, and in 1938, a researcher reported that it was a form of artificial estrogen. Its entree into medical use was stopped by the discovery of a more potent form of artificial estrogen, called DES, according to the Environmental Working Group. DES, though, was removed from the market when it was linked to ovarian and other reproductive cancers.
BPA became widely used in industry by the 1960s, and was "grandfathered" in as a chemical presumed safe when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976.
Much of the exposure to BPA comes through consuming canned foods and beverages. The chemical is used to create a resin for lining cans, which helps preserve the food and keep it from acquiring a metallic taste. Research by the Environmental Working Group in 2007 found BPA in 57 percent of the 97 cans they tested, with the highest levels in canned soup, pastas and infant formula.
Drinking from bottles containing BPA also exposes people to the chemical as it leaches into liquid. It has commonly been used to create hard plastic, reusable water bottles, although some manufacturers are creating BPA-free bottles. Most major plastic baby bottle manufacturers have also stopped using the chemical. BPA is valued in manufacturing for its ability to create rigid, shatterproof plastic products, and it's found in scores of consumer goods, from sunglasses to CDs.
Almost all Americans have detectable levels of BPA. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found it in 93 percent of 2,500 subjects, with children showing the highest levels. In 1996, the FDA wrote that adults on average consume 11 micrograms of BPA daily, while infants consume 7 micrograms per day.
The chemical has also been detected in amniotic fluid, breast milk and umbilical cord blood, said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, which publishes "Consumer Reports."
"It's a bit perplexing, frankly, that we haven't taken action on this substance," Rangan said. "We don't think consumers should have to be continually eating this stuff while everybody sorts out the exact level of safety or harm."
Several states and municipalities regulate BPA, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington and Chicago.
The California Chamber of Commerce, however, advocates for the bill's defeat, saying it could cost the state jobs and force some manufacturers to shut down. The chamber added that any regulation of BPA should be established after it undergoes review in California's new "green chemistry" program, which launches in 2011. That program allows the Department of Toxic Substances Control to examine the potential hazards of chemicals in consumer products, and to require the use of safer alternatives, if needed.
Opponents of SB 797 also object to legislators setting scientific policy in advance of regulators.
But Pavley said the issue can't wait, since it may be several years before the green chemistry program is ready to start assessing suspect chemicals.
"In the meantime," she said, "more than 550,000 babies will be born in California each year, and will be exposed to the health risks posed by BPA."
Rangan, with the Consumers Union, sees it differently.
"It's any state's right to represent its consumers when they don't feel they're being represented at the federal level," she said.
Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.