With a soon-to-be-crawling infant, I’m constantly on the defensive to protect him from swallowing his siblings’ treasures or other hazardous bits. Despite my vigilance, on his daily prowls through our living space Samuel is apt to find anything from a dried up muffin crumb to a miniature Kinder Egg toy or a wax crayon. His curiosity about new objects combined with his aching gums and voracious appetite certainly keeps me on my toes. Luckily, I’ve got two sharp-eyed helpers, Anna Lee and Oliver, who are equally as dedicated to making sure Samuel doesn’t mistakenly chomp down on their misplaced Lego instead of his baby teething ring. Both children are eager to feed the baby his “real” food (i.e. cereal O’s or puffed corn sticks) and quick to snatch away anything that they deem inappropriate (toys or their own food). I breathe easier knowing that apart from the odd escaped toy, all the items within Samuel’s reach are safe for his exploration.
Yet last week, I read an article in the Czech news about the country’s new Bisphenol A (BPA) regulations that made my spirits sink. Despite my best efforts to safeguard my son within our home, the Czech government seems to be behaving like a negligent parent with regard to the health of infants. When recent EU legislation banned BPA plastics from being used in the production of baby bottles, the Czech government dragged its feet. In the Czech Republic, the unsafe bottles will be allowed to be produced past the 1 March deadline. As of 1 June, the sale of baby bottles containing BPA will be banned throughout Europe per EU mandate. However, when the Czech government was pressed to extend the ban to cover all BPA infant products, including cups, plates, silverware and plastic wrap, intended for use by children under three, the Czech government’s Chief Public Health Officer and Public Hygiene Officers maintained that there was no need for such blanket legislation. Instead, the ministry wanted more time to study the risks associated with BPA before eliminating it from children’s products. With this lax attitude from Czech public officials, it’s quite likely that Samuel, and most of his Czech peers, have or will soon come into contact with BPA in plastic eating ware, despite a parent’s best attempts to safeguard them against such products.
Although BPA is currently generating buzz in European news, the dangers associated with the hormone-based chemical, including increased fertility problems, cancers of the reproductive organs and insulin-resistant diabetes, have become increasingly known to the public in the past few years. Considered “this generation’s lead” by many of the world’s leading scientists, BPA is particularly dangerous for infants of breastfeeding age whose immature systems aren’t developed enough to withstand the introduction of the estrogen-based hormone. Exposure to BPA as an infant can lead to health problems that show up years later. Despite attempts to convince political leaders to err on the side of caution and eliminate BPA from the plastics used to package children’s food, Greenpeace and health organizations around the world have run against resistance from officials who want more proof of the chemical’s dangers before passing legislation. While the Czech Republic isn’t the only European country that hasn’t passed stronger legislation against BPA, there are also other more forward thinking legislatures on the other side of the spectrum. Danish authorities, for example, pro-actively banned the use of BPA in all products intended for young children.
Admittedly, when I first heard the news about BPA in 2008, I didn’t pay attention to the specific details of the potential danger, mostly because the news channels in the US and Canada where BPA was a top story didn’t reach me as strongly living in the Czech Republic as they did my relatives in the US. However, once my mother and sister-in-law filled me in, I followed their recommendations and purchased among other things, new BPA-free Nalgene plastic sports bottles for the children. I checked our other plastics and, satisfied that they bore the recycling symbol 5 for polypropylene, I didn’t think much more about BPA in children’s plastics until Samuel began teething and drinking from a sippy cup. When I purchased his sippy cup, I easily found one at the drugstore labeled BPA-free.
Now that the BPA story has been in European news headlines for the past few months, I made another sweep of our plastic ware and found several items I’d acquired over the years, like dishes for storing homemade baby food, that weren’t labeled at all. I also went through our basket of infant toys and discovered that the majority of them were either entirely or partially made from plastic, which of course, wasn’t identified. I tried to remove everything that I couldn’t identify as “safe,” but the overwhelming use of plastic in infant dishware and toys made me feel less than certain I’d gotten it all. I’m sure once Samuel matures out of his current bite-into-everything phase, my nerves will relax a bit. Still, it troubles me that other governments, like in the Czech Republic, aren’t taking the Danish example more to heart.
Coincidentally, the same day I read about the Czech Republic dragging its feet on BPA safety regulations, I read an article about the country having the lowest infant mortality rate in years. The Czech Republic consistently scores among the top countries with the lowest infant mortality rates. In many ways, this small country is strikingly pro-active in its prenatal and newborn care. Prenatal care is comprehensive and available to all Czech citizens, five-day post-delivery hospital stays are common place, pediatricians offer home visits and there is strong support for nursing mothers. In this environment, it seems that there should be more interest in banning a substance that has been proven to have lasting detrimental health effects, particularly on the very young. In many ways, I’m not that surprised that the Czech government is willing to patch the problem in order to stay in good favor with the EU, but it seems very short-sighted. I’m still hoping for stronger prohibitions on BPA’s use in children’s products, but in the meantime, I’m trying to do my parental part and chose non-plastic items, or at least, only plastic clearly not containing BPA.
In the aftermath of the tragic tsunami in Japan and the current fighting in Libya, caring what kind of plastic a child cuts his first teeth on might seem irrelevant. But knowing that I have a chance and a responsibility to cultivate a safe environment for my children, it seems unthinkable to do otherwise.