AUGUSTA — The Board of Environmental Protection took a preliminary vote Thursday to ban the sale of baby food and infant formula in containers made with the chemical additive bisphenol-A, or BPA. If approved in a final vote and later endorsed by the legislature, the initiative would make Maine the third state to impose BPA bans that exceed federal standards.

The board action was prompted by a citizens’ petition submitted last June that also sought a ban on toddler food packaged in containers with BPA. The board didn’t endorse the toddler food ban, citing concerns about identifying what foods are aimed at children under age 3.

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Samantha DePoy-Warren said the agency would need expert help to define toddler foods, which would leave a gray area for manufacturers and consumers. BEP chairman Robert Foley said in the meeting that a toddler food ban “would be difficult, if not impossible, for the department to enforce.”

Richard Gould, a board member from Greenville, said specificity was important. “How can you determine if a can of peas is intended for toddlers?” he asked.

The board is scheduled to take a final vote Jan. 24.

“We’re thrilled that the board decided to take action and get BPA out of infant formula and baby food,” said Amanda Sears, associate director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, part of alliance that supported the petition. “That’s absolutely the right decision to make in this.”

Democratic leaders in the Legislature cheered the ruling.

Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said in a prepared statement that he will submit a bill to support the BEP’s proposed ban. “It’s clear the Legislature has to continue our work to protect older children as well,” Goodall said. “For example, we need to clarify certain words and definitions such as ‘toddler food’ so that the (board) can continue its good work of keeping our families out of harm’s way from toxic chemicals.”

House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, also voiced his support. “This action taken by the Board of Environmental Protection is an important additional step towards keeping our children safe from clearly harmful chemicals.”

A DEP staff report said 92 percent of baby food manufacturers that responded to state inquiries said they have removed or were taking steps to remove BPA from packaging. It also said studies show it’s unclear whether BPA used in baby food lids makes contact with food.

“There needs to be proof of exposure and proof of safe alternatives,” DePoy-Warren said. “We really need irrefutable evidence, and we don’t think that’s there with baby food.”

At Thursday’s meeting, however, M. Wing Goodale, a board member from Falmouth, noted that Gerber, the nation’s largest baby food maker, has moved to eliminate BPA from packaging. A document filed by petitioners says it uses alternatives such as aseptic containers.

Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, a board member from Yarmouth, said scientific evidence, including some showing the chemical leaches from containers into food products and is consumed, was enough to get her to support infant formula and baby food packaging.

“I would like to see it removed from everything else, and I can make that choice by what I’m choosing to purchase; but that’s not what’s in front of us,” she said.

The DEP staff earlier this month did not support the ban in toddler food or baby food, which prompted outrage from a group of mothers organized by the alliance.

“Once you get the women excited, it’s time to look out. I’ve been married 60 years and I learned that a long time ago,” said Gould, the board member from Greenville. “When they want something, they go out and get it, especially when it comes to their kids.”

One of those mothers, Megan Rice, 36, of China, said though she hopes the state can soon clarify a definition of toddler food, she was encouraged by the board’s action.

“I definitely feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Rice said. “I’m doing it for my kids, so I’m committed until the end.”

Studies have linked BPA to a host of health problems, including developmental problems, cancer and diabetes. It’s a chemical known to exhibit hormone-like properties, mimicking estrogen. It’s used as an additive in some plastic bottles and food packaging.

The Food and Drug Administration’s stance on BPA is that “scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.”

Still, in July 2012 the FDA banned the chemical from baby bottles and sippy cups, while many advocates said the ban didn’t go far enough. The FDA said that wasn’t a referendum on the chemical’s safety, and it said the administration still deemed it safe in food products.

If the board’s two proposed bans go through, Maine will join Connecticut and Vermont in banning BPA in those products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Maine, BPA has not been allowed in baby bottles, sippy cups and other reusable food and beverage containers since 2010 as part of the Kid-Safe Products Act, passed in 2008. The new bans on BPA in baby food and infant formula couldn’t go into effect before Aug. 15, said Kerri Malinowski, who manages the law for the DEP.

Gov. Paul LePage has expressed skepticism that BPA is harmful, saying he’s in step with the federal government.

In 2011, he said the worst effect from BPA exposure could be that “some women may have little beards” because of the chemical’s estrogen-mimicking effects — a statement that prompted criticism from many quarters, especially women’s groups.

LePage addressed the chemical in a media briefing last week, saying, “By banning it just here in Maine and not the rest of the country, we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing to ourselves for years: We make ourselves less competitive — more costly.

“If there is a scientific reason to take BPA off the shelves, I will support it,” he said.

Legislative Republicans have long been moderate on BPA. The Kid-Safe act originally passed unanimously in the Senate and with only nine dissenting votes in the House.

House Republican spokesman David Sorensen said since it’s still early in the process, Republicans will wait for legislators to research the issue thoroughly before responding. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the decision on BPA “should be made on the basis of science and not politics,” but he said he wanted to see language presented to the Legislature before coming down on one side or another.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
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