The European Commission on Thursday agreed to ban the common chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) from baby bottles across the European Union (EU) by mid-2011.
The decision follows a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach taken by many countries, manufacturers and consumers in the past few years, as a steady stream of research (most of it in animals) suggests that exposure to BPA may affect development and poses cancer risks. At the same time, it’s not clear whether our everyday exposure merits restricting the chemical – though with young infants, few want to take any chances.
Denmark and Canada have the most thorough restrictions, while France and some US states have also imposed baby-bottle BPA bans. In October 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a “toxic substance”.
BPA is used to help make hard polycarbonate plastics and resins in a variety of products, including food-can linings and bottles. It mimics the hormone oestrogen, so disrupts the body’s hormone balance. Many studies on lab animals exposed to BPA have shown the chemical has cognitive, developmental and reproductive effects. A Nature news feature (‘The big test for bisphenol A’) earlier this year explains the difficulties in drawing firm conclusions about BPA’s effects from animal studies, some of whose methods differ from traditional toxicity assessments.
In humans, epidemiological studies have associated levels of the chemical with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as with DNA damage in sperm. This month, studies found that BPA is readily absorbed through the skin, and that people who regularly handle till receipts had higher than average levels of the chemical in their bodies.
In recent reviews of scientific studies, neither the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) nor the US Food and Drug Administration thought our everyday exposure to BPA had been shown sufficiently risky to merit bans on the chemical’s use.
But of Thursday’s ban (formally a majority decision by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health to adopt a Commission proposal), John Dalli, European Commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy, said: “In the view of the recent opinion of EFSA, I had stressed that there were areas of uncertainty, deriving from new studies, which showed that BPA might have an effect on the development, immune response or tumour promotion.”
“I do not know of any convincing evidence that bisphenol A exposure, in the amounts used in polycarbonate bottles, can cause any harm to babies,” said Richard Sharpe, of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit at the University of Edinburgh. “Personally I think the ban is an overreaction … if satisfactory replacement chemicals are available then [they] can be put in place to placate those calling for action, but scientifically it’s a retrograde step,” he added.
Many manufacturers now offer BPA-free bottles – though they are anecdotally more expensive than the BPA bottles were.