In one of the most significant regulatory actions in decades, Canada is poised to become the first country in the world to list bisphenol A as a toxic substance and ban the use of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles made of the controversial material.
It also intends to tell baby food manufacturers to reduce the amounts of it leaching from the linings of infant formula cans.
Health Minister Tony Clement announced the steps yesterday, saying current exposures to the chemical, while small, don’t provide enough of a safety margin for babies and infants up to 18 months old, placing them at possible risk of developmental or neurological problems.
Although the government doesn’t expect to formally ban polycarbonate baby bottles for another year, the use of the product is coming to a rapid end in Canada anyway. Throughout the week, retailers across the country took the nearly unprecedented step of stripping their shelves of polycarbonate bottles used by infants and adults in the face of overwhelming consumer rejection of the product.
Canada on its own has never taken an international lead to ban the use of controversial substances. The move against bisphenol A, which is able to mimic the female hormone estrogen, is being compared with decisions made by the United States and other countries more than 30 years ago to curb the use of the insecticide DDT – the first major chemical challenged on public health and environmental grounds.
Bisphenol A is one of the most widely used synthetic chemicals in the world, with industry able to produce about three billion kilograms annually, although none is made in Canada.
“This is the first time in living memory that our federal government has taken such a leadership position in the world on an issue like this,” commented Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, an advocacy group. “I think oftentimes Canadians want … to know that our country is doing right in the world, and in this particular case today it’s actually happening.”
The industry association representing BPA manufacturers, the Arlington, Va.-based American Chemistry Council, issued a statement contending the Canadian government acted without justification.
It said consumer product bans “are not supported by science and are inconsistent with Health Canada’s assessment” that found infants are not exposed to bisphenol A at harmful levels.
Although Mr. Clement agreed, saying that government scientists believe babies and young children haven’t been damaged by ingesting the traces of bisphenol A, or BPA, he cautioned that leaching from food containers was too high to give complete assurance of no harm.
“We believe that the current safety margin needs to be higher. We have concluded that it is better to be safe than sorry,” Mr. Clement told a news conference yesterday in Ottawa, announcing the decision as “precautionary action.”
He warned parents still using the plastic baby bottles against the common practice of sterilizing them with boiling water or adding boiling water to them for mixing formula; heating causes BPA to leach out and give an inadvertent dose of the chemical to children.
Federal scientists, at a technical briefing for reporters later, also recommended that pregnant women minimize consumption of beverages from heated polycarbonate bottles, although they think the chemical doesn’t pose a general risk to the broader population.
The Globe and Mail first reported nearly two years ago that some scientists had strong reservations about BPA – a chemical that was tested in the 1930s during the search for estrogenic drugs, but that in the 1950s began to be used to make plastics, the epoxy resins for lining cans and hundreds of other products. Researchers have linked it to a variety of hormonally influenced conditions thought to be increasing in modern society, including cancer, declining sperm counts and early puberty in girls.
Since then, The Globe has published more than 25 stories about the chemical and the debate over its possible hazards. Earlier this week, the newspaper revealed that Health Canada, along with Environment Canada, would issue a draft risk assessment recommending BPA be added to Canada’s list of toxic substances, a designation that allows the government to pass regulations restricting its use.
Major retailers began pulling the products from their shelves shortly after. That move has had reverberations in the United States, where the Washington Post reported that merchandising giant Wal-Mart, following the lead of its Canadian subsidiary, would also stop selling polycarbonate bottles.
And yesterday, the company that almost single-handedly made reusable polycarbonate water bottles an iconic part of modern life, from the backwoods to university campuses, announced that it would no longer use BPA. The maker of the tinted Nalgene water bottles, Nalge Nunc International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., said it is switching to alternative plastics, such as copolyester, in response to consumer demand.
Canada’s decision is also likely to have repercussions on countries that have approved the use of BPA.
The European Food Safety Authority concluded in late 2006, based in part on safety studies funded by the American Chemistry Council, that BPA presents no health threat, even for babies and infants. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration also views BPA’s use as safe, based on two studies funded by the council.
The chemistry council submitted the same research to Canadian regulators. But federal scientists, who reviewed a total of about 150 different studies in their evaluation of the chemical, concluded that it should be labelled toxic. CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc.