Responding to new government reports in Canada and the United States, retailers and manufacturers took steps in mid-April that could be the beginning of the end for polycarbonate bottles that contain bisphenol-A in North America.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stopped the sale April 16 of baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, food containers and water bottles containing BPA in Canada, and an April 18 report in the Washington Post said the giant retail chain plans to stop selling baby bottles made with BPA in its U.S. stores early next year.
In addition, less than one week after reaffirming its intent to continue making bottles that contain BPA, leading water bottle maker Nalgene Outdoor Products in Rochester, N.Y., said April 18 that it will phase out production of its Outdoor line of PC containers during the next several months. Nalgene, a unit of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., popularized PC water bottles starting in the 1970s.
Others that said they will remove water bottles containing BPA from their stores include Canadian sporting goods retailer Forzani Group Ltd., mass retailer Hudson's Bay Co. and Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd.
The sudden action from retailers and manufacturers was in reaction to an anticipated announcement April 18 from Health Canada proposing a ban on PC baby bottles, as well as an April 14 report in the United States by the National Toxicology Program that raised the level of concern of the potential adverse health effects of BPA on developing fetuses, infants and pregnant women.
Steve Hentges, executive director of the PC/BPA unit of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., said in an April 16 phone interview that ``retailers are acting prematurely.''
``So far, no harmful health effects have been attributed to BPA,'' Hentges said. To pull BPA bottles off store shelves now ``would be to make a decision based on a lack of information, and how can that be a sound decision?''
Hentges said he isn't sure the reports of either Health Canada or NTP support taking products off the shelves. ``But I don't know how you can'' persuade retailers otherwise, he added.
Under Canada's environmental laws, Health Canada's action triggers a 60-day comment period. The move does not automatically lead to any product bans, but a news release from Health Minister Tony Clement said: ``To be prudent, the Government of Canada is proposing to reduce bisphenol A exposure in infants and newborns by proposing a number of actions,'' including a ban on PC baby bottles, and labeling BPA as a toxin.
Likewise, NTP has no U.S. regulatory authority. But its report did reverse some findings in the report issued six months ago by an independent, 12-member expert panel convened by the Center for the Evaluation of Risk to Human Reproduction.
Specifically, NTP said there should be some concern, rather than just minimal concern as the expert panel had advised, about the potential adverse health effects of BPA on fetuses and infants because of the potential effect on the prostate gland, the brain and the acceleration of puberty in females.
It also noted potential effects on mammary glands, which the expert panel had dismissed.
``Most of the studies would say it is not causing an adverse health effect,'' said Michael Shelby, director of NTP's CERHR in Research Triangle Park, N.C. ``In our review, there is only limited evidence that adverse effects are occurring, and it is not clear whether it will lead to adverse effects.
``But there is enough evidence that we cannot dismiss this, either. It is enough evidence to raise a flag to conduct additional studies to see if these effects are reproducible and linked to adverse health effects.''
Shelby said NTP relied on low-dose animal tests dismissed by the expert panel because of new studies that suggested BPA is metabolized at the same rate regardless of whether it is injected or delivered orally. The panel had given less weight to studies where rodents were injected with BPA because previous evidence suggested that injected BPA bypasses the normal metabolism and does not simulate what happens in the body.
``The NTP validates dozens of studies disregarded in the previous report and has delivered a report much more protective of human health,'' said Anila Jacob, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group in Washington. ``This validates our concerns about this chemical.''
Jacob called the quick decisions by retailers to stop selling BPA bottles ``a move in the right direction.'' But she said the Food and Drug Administration needs to use the NTP report ``to reassess and set safety standards that are protective of these at-risk populations. We don't think the [FDA] standard is based on current science.''
FDA has said is aware of NTP's report, but has made no decision on how to proceed. The subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked the FDA to describe the process that it ``may reconsider [its] decision regarding the safety of BPA'' by April 18.
But Sharon Kneiss, vice president of the products division of the American Chemistry Council, said safety is not a problem with bottles made from BPA.
``Polycarbonate bottles that contain BPA and BPA-lined cans are safe,'' Kneiss said in an April 17 teleconference. ``There is no definitive evidence that exposure to BPA causes adverse health effects in humans. Media coverage has characterized this new report as going in a new direction and this is not true.
``The bottom line is that additional research is needed before a conclusion can be drawn. We are committed to the safety of our products. We owe it to the public to correct the misperceptions about our products.''
Plastics News correspondent Michael Lauzon contributed to this report.