After missing three deadlines to make a decision on the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical commonly used in food containers, the federal government further delayed its decision Friday, announcing that while it has “some concern” about the safety of the chemical, more research is needed.

While it delayed making a hard decision on the safety of the chemical, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offered tips for parents to minimize infant exposure to the chemical, and launched a $30 million interagency research initiative to review BPA safety over the next 18 to 24 months.

baby-cup-BPA.jpg“In the meantime, while scientists are gathering more data, there are some simple, reasonable steps families and parents can take to minimize exposure to BPA,” the department announced on its website, which encourages mothers to breastfeed infants for at least 12 months when possible, discard scratched baby bottles and sippy cups, and to avoid putting hot water or infant formula into BPA-containing containers.

Many consumer advocates viewed the move as “encouraging,” because it recognized the potential risk posed by the chemical, but still find the recommendations confusing to the public.

“The message, to be honest, is quite confusing,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

Dr. Rangan believes there is ample evidence for the government to regulate the chemical in food containers.  “FDA’s admission of concern with BPA is an encouraging change in its position and we hope it will lead to concrete protection for consumers. However, we are concerned that the new advice on reducing exposure puts the onus on consumers to protect themselves until such a ban is put in place.”

“Our advice is that the we shouldn’t be using these products at all,” said Rangan. “The scientific evidence is clear that BPA poses serious health risks, especially to young children and the developing children and the developing fetus. It is time for the FDA and Congress to act quickly to ban this toxin from all food and beverage containers.”

U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a long time advocate for stronger food safety regulations, voiced similar sentiments after Friday’s announcement.

“After a series of having the science on the potential dangers of BPA dismissed or completely ignored, it is reassuring that the FDA now is acknowledging that there is concern for its health effects on infants and children,” said DeLauro in a statement. “I urge the FDA to aggressively pursue further answers on BPA through sound, independent research.”

BPA–which has been used for over forty years in plastic products ranging from baby bottles to sippy cups to the lining of tin cans–is now found in an overwhelming majority of Americans. Studies have also found the chemical in 90 percent of infant cord blood and in most canned foods. 

Recent research has linked BPA to disruptions in the endocrine system, an issue that can cause reproductive, neurological, and behavioral problems, causing a growing number of consumer and health advocates to push for greater regulation of the chemical’s use in food containers.

In 2008, near the end of the Bush Administration, the FDA conducted a toxicology review of the chemical and maintained that foods containing low levels of the chemical were safe.

New research and increased public concern has caused HHS and the FDA to reevaluate the safety of the chemical.

“Recent reports show subtle effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals, and that has raised concerns which we now are taking a much closer look at,” William Corr, deputy secretary of HHS, said Friday.

Corr also made it clear that the agency does not believe there is conclusive evidence that the chemical causes harm, “BPA has not been proven to harm either children of adults, but the data deserves a much closer look because children are being exposed in their early stages of development and that, of course, is of concern to us.”

“We need more research to understand the potential health effects of BPA exposure in children,” added Corr.