WASHINGTON — A British environmental group has launched a campaign to phase out a key component of polycarbonate, aiming for a repeat of what European governments did last year when they banned phthalates from toys for young children. The World Wildlife Fund's United Kingdom branch wants governments to phase out bisphenol A, arguing that evidence is growing that it leaches out of baby bottles and the lining of food cans, and causes harm at much lower levels than previously thought.
Industry officials, on the other hand, said WWF-UK is scaring the public and said regulatory agencies have found BPA safe. Since PC is used widely, the debate could have much broader implications than a ban on phthalates.
No European government or agency at the European Commission has taken action, but WWF expects them to, said Chloe Webster, WWF-UK's toxics policy officer. WWF released the report May 9 in Europe.
"We'll push for the right to know if your baby is exposed," she said. "You can't expect consumers to be happy about that. Whether it is banning it, or phasing it out, I do expect some kind of action."
Industry sources said they do not see the debate playing out the same way as the phthalates issue.
Ad Vos, director of government relations and public affairs in Europe for GE Plastics' office in Bergen-op-Zoom, the Netherlands, said close contacts the company has had with European regulators do not show any signs of a similar reaction.
"Anything can happen, but we don't see any signs," Vos said.
John Heinze, senior vice president for science at John Adams Associates, a Washington consulting firm for BPA manufacturers, said scientific research backs the safety of BPA.
"The issue with the phthalates was, how do you estimate exposure of young children chewing on the plastics, and does that estimate of exposure give you an adequate safety margin," he said. With BPA, he added, "There is just a lot of science known about bisphenol A and its safety, [and] there is a lot less room for taking speculative action."
He said the key will be how regulators view a controversial scientific proposal called the low-dose theory.
That theory says BPA affects the endocrine system of animals at much lower doses than previously thought. WWF argues that safe exposure limits should be reduced.
The WWF report said a 1997 study found that BPA increases prostate weights and lowers sperm production at very low levels in mice, and several studies since then have found that relatively low levels can affect fetuses.
"When you do see some evidence pointing to harm, you really should use the precautionary principle," Webster said. "Do you wait 20 years, or do you do something before?"
WWF said an unpublished British government study found BPA is released from baby bottles subjected to bottle brushing, dishwashing or sterilization. The BPA industry feels the low-dose studies have not been reproduceable.
A statement from the Bisphenol A Sector Group, part of the European Chemical Industry Council, said the unpublished study will confirm that BPA is released at levels far below that set by regulatory bodies. The group claims WWF is ignoring evidence that BPA is safe in food containers and baby bottles.
Besides calling for the phaseout of BPA, the report said the public should have full access to research about the concerns and uncertainties of BPA exposure and it should know what products are made of, to allow for informed choice.
The report was released in Europe, and the WWF's U.S. branch said it currently does not plan to ask U.S. regulators to take action.
WWF-U.S. does not have a formal position on the specific recommendations in the report, said Richard Liroff, senior program officer in the Washington office. WWF has been very involved in jump-starting the endocrine debate in the United States.
European branches can target specific products more easily because the political system there gives more leeway to regulators on scientific decisions, he said.
"There is an enormous amount of discretion those policy makers have, rather than in the U.S., where they are constrained by different rules and restrictions," he said.