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Groups Urge BPA Ban in All Food Packaging

By Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail, December 16, 2008

Canada is the first country in the world to propose banning plastic baby bottles made from bisphenol A, but an influential coalition of public health and environmental advocates says the federal government hasn't gone far enough and should also protect pregnant women from the controversial chemical.

The bottle ban, announced by Health Canada with great fanfare earlier this year, was put in place as a precaution to minimize exposures for babies under 18 months.

But the groups want the government also to ban the chemical in all food packaging, including cans, based on worries that mothers are ingesting it through food and inadvertently exposing their fetuses.

"Protecting infants against BPA is not enough. We need to protect the fetus, and that means protecting the mother," said Barbara McElgunn, health policy adviser for the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. The association was one of the 22 groups that yesterday called on the federal government to introduce the wide-ranging food packaging ban.

The impact of bisphenol A during pregnancy and its potential health threats, if any, during fetal development, are not clear. Many scientists are worried about BPA, as it is also known, because it can mimic estrogen, and exposures to the compound may be giving the public an extra dollop of the female hormone.

There are concerns that BPA is linked to illnesses and conditions that are becoming increasingly common and could reflect hormone imbalances, including breast cancer, early puberty in girls, obesity and neurodevelopment problems, such as attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorders.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Health Canada said its assessment of the dangers of BPA identified "pregnant women/fetus as a potentially sensitive subpopulation" for the chemical's possible effects, but the agency cautioned that figures on exposures for the fetus are not currently available.

"Health Canada is studying some of the key information gaps identified in the screening assessment, including exposure to the fetus, metabolism of BPA and the mechanism by which BPA may cause effects at low levels of exposure," it said.

The federal agency said it found that adults, including pregnant women, had lower estimated exposures than young babies to BPA, and for that reason, it decided to ban it in baby bottles.

Diet is believed to be the major route of exposure to bisphenol A, which is used in the epoxy resins lining the insides of almost all canned foods and beverages and the metal lids of glass containers. It's also found in household dust and dozens of other consumer products, including compact discs and dental sealants.

BPA isn't completely stable in packaging and traces migrate due to the natural acidity of many foods and the effects of the high temperatures used in food sterilization.

The amounts leaching from cans are minuscule - often only parts per billion - but naturally produced estrogen is active at the parts-per-trillion level, a thousand times less.

Despite yesterday's criticism of the government, Canada has taken a leading role in regulating the chemical. Besides the plastic baby bottle ban, Health Canada said in October that it would add bisphenol A to the country's list of toxic substances, the first country to take such a step. The agency is also encouraging infant formula makers to reduce the amount of the chemical migrating from baby food cans and is considering a target limiting the amount leaching from all types of canned goods.

Canada's actions have had international reverberations. They have led to pressure in the United States to have the Food and Drug Administration review the status of the chemical, which it has deemed to be safe.

Critics of Canada's position say it has focused on risks for newborns but failed to take actions that would protect fetal development, a time of exquisite sensitivity to harmful chemicals.

Much of the research finding harm from BPA has been conducted on laboratory animals exposed during gestation and early in life.

"I think from a precautionary perspective, you need to look at ways of protecting the developing fetus in the womb," says Fe de Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, one of the 22 groups that criticized the government. The other groups included the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and Breast Cancer Action Montreal.

See CEA's related media release: Canada's BPA measures not protecting the most vunerable