Message in BPA Baby Bottles: Don’t Mess with Moms

By Margie Kelly, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

It began with a phone call between two sisters. Who then called two friends, who called their friends. And so on. At first blush, it doesn't seem possible that virtually the entire U.S. baby bottle supply – millions of bottles – could be completely reconfigured within two years by a modern day "telephone game" played by new moms. But it's true. The extraordinary level of mom-to-mom word of mouth communications about toxic chemicals in baby bottles launched a series of events that changed the baby bottle market in record time, raised the market and political profiles of "power moms," and rocked the chemical industry so hard that the reverberations are still felt today.

In 2006, Alicia Voorhies's sister Joanie Whitman called in a panic after visiting the pediatrician with her newborn son for the first time. The doctor recommended that Joanie use only glass bottles and stay away from the clear plastic bottles to avoid exposing her son to estrogen that leached from the plastic. Whitman, who had recently moved to South Carolina from Kansas, was worried that her son's doctor was "off his rocker." She called Voorhies, a retired nurse living back in Kansas and self-described "research geek," who set off to prove the doctor wrong. It didn't take her long to learn, to her dismay, that the warning given by her sister's pediatrician was both correct and alarming.

Voorhies uncovered hundreds of studies by research scientists and governments that had found the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) mimics the hormone estrogen and can disrupt normal functions of the body. BPA, one of the highest volume chemicals produced in the world, is a core component of polycarbonate plastic used to make baby bottles and reusable water bottles, the lining of food and beverage cans, and cash-register receipts. Human exposure is widespread; over 90 percent of people in the United States have BPA in their blood and urine, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even low levels of exposure have been linked to health effects including reproductive harm, increased cancer susceptibility, and abnormalities in brain development.

Armed with this information, Voorhies began to search for a BPA-free plastic baby bottle that her sister could use. But in 2006, consumers were in the dark about BPA; it was not widely known that baby bottles were made with a chemical that could be dangerous to babies and children. When Voorhies called baby bottle manufacturers to ask them if their bottles contained BPA, "they thought I was insane," she recounts. Manufacturers couldn't give her answers about whether BPA was in their baby bottles, and the people on the other end of the line rarely even knew what BPA was.

Fast forward to 2011. Today you'd be hard pressed to find a baby bottle made with BPA available on store shelves anywhere in the country. And that's primarily because women, outraged that there was a dangerous chemical in their babies' bottles, exerted a gale force wind of market, media, and political pressure that led baby bottle manufacturers to abandon BPA within just a few years of Joanie Whitman's call to her sister, Alicia Voohies.

No Guarantees of Safety

Rejecting BPA baby bottles was a cultural bonding moment shared by moms across the country; it didn't take public information materials or celebrity campaigns to make mothers skeptical about feeding their babies from a bottle made with a dangerous toxic chemical. Bobbi Chase Wilding, BPA coordinator for the National Work Group for Safe Markets, recalled women reacting to the news with a combination of incredulousness and anger. "Women were standing up to retailers and chemical makers, saying, ‘How dare you make a baby bottle with a cheap toxic chemical that hurts my kid's health,'" said Wilding.

It became painfully clear to parents that the impact on children's health from exposure to toxic chemicals found in products was not part of the manufacturing decision.

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