The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is set to announce this week whether it will ban bisphenol A, a controversial chemical commonly known as BPA, in food and beverage packaging.

The deadline, this Saturday, was set as part of a settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against FDA. The group petitioned FDA three years ago to prohibit BPA from being used in food packaging, citing human health concerns, and eventually filed suit to force the agency to respond. In December 2011 a court ruled that FDA had until March 31 to do so.

BPA has been widely used in food and beverage containers — including Tupperware, baby bottles, and canned food lining — for decades and standardized toxicology tests have indicated that the chemical is safe. But a growing body of research looking at subtle effects at low levels of exposure has led the Natonal Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA to conclude that they have “some concern” about the potential effects of BPA “on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children.”

“FDA has a responsibility to protect the public’s health and one step they must take to fulfill their mission is banning BPA as a food additive,” said Sarah Janssen, an NRDC scientist. “If FDA accepts our petition and acts to remove BPA from our food supply, the biggest sources of BPA exposure will be removed from the market and we expect the levels of exposure to BPA will drop significantly. We know that simple changes in diet which eliminate canned food and plastics can have dramatic effects on a person’s BPA level.  The impact will be seen immediately.”

In a call last week with reporters, NRDC lawyer Nick Morales said he didn’t know how FDA would respond, but that NRDC would thoroughly evaluate the agency’s response before considering possible next steps.

The FDA also faces other BPA petitions.

Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) last week sent FDA three petitions calling on the agency to remove approval for the use of BPA in everyday household products that come into contact with food and beverages.

Markey is a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over FDA, targets three use categories in the petitions: infant formula and baby and toddler packaging, small reusable household food and beverage containers and canned food packaging.

“Industry practice, fueled by consumer demand, has led to the development of alternatives for BPA in these household products, and these petitions to FDA should close the door on the use of this dangerous chemical in food and beverage containers forever,” said Rep. Markey. “These petitions will help ensure that BPA is forever kept out of our bodies, especially those of infants and children.”

Last year, the American Chemistry Council petitioned the agency to withdraw approval for use of polycarbonate resins, which contain the chemical, in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups, even though most of the industry has already responded to consumer demand and no longer uses the chemical. In mid-February the FDA opened a 60-day comment period on the matter.

“Although governments around the world continue to support the safety of BPA in food contact materials, confusion about whether BPA is used in baby bottles and sippy cups has become an unnecessary distraction to consumers, legislators and state regulators,” said Steven G. Hentges, Ph.D., of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council. “FDA action on this request will provide certainty that BPA is not used to make the baby bottles and sippy cups on store shelves, either today or in the future.”

After FDA said it had “some concern” about BPA’s safety particularly

regarding exposure to infants and young children in January 2010, the

government launched a $30 million National Institutes of Health research

initiative to help shed light on the issue. More than 100 studies have

already been published since the research project launched, they can be

viewed here.

Canada, the European Union, China, Malaysia, South Africa and Argentina have initiated bans in products intended for small children. Australia and Japan have voluntary bans and 11 states have their own children’s product bans on the books.