Boots and Mothercare are selling baby bottles made with a chemical that scientists fear may cause breast cancer, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity and other disorders, The Independent can disclose.
The behaviour of Britain's biggest infant-products retailers contrasts with that of manufacturers, who have quietly stopped putting bisphenol A, or BPA, into baby bottles "to allay parents' fears", amid peer-reviewed studies in medical journals associating it with serious health problems in laboratory animals.
Canada and three US states, Connecticut, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have banned BPA in baby bottles and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is concerned about its impact on babies and young children, and supports its removal from infant-feeding products.
However BPA, a synthetically-produced hormonal substance which is added to plastics to make them tougher, is legal in Britain and most of the rest of the world, and Boots and Mothercare, the biggest retailers in Britain's £141m-a-year infant-feeding market, have continued to sell off old stock containing the controversial chemical without labelling it on packaging.
Boots, the country's biggest chemists' chain, also sells BPA bottles branded with Disney characters made by another firm, Tommee Tippee, which has removed BPA from its own bottles.
In the US, the six biggest baby bottle firms including Disney stopped making BPA products last year following scientific outrage at the then failure of the FDA to tackle its potential impact. Other infant-feeding brands such as NUK have already removed BPA from British bottles.
Boots, Mothercare and Disney insisted BPA bottles were safe, even though they have ordered its removal from current production. Mothercare said: "Mothercare takes the issue of product quality and safety extremely seriously and all our bottles and feeding equipment comply with strict European standards."
It added that it offered "reassurance and advice" to customers through its website and leaflets, which advise users to ensure polycarbonate bottles were "free from scratches or signs of wear, to replace them after six months' usage and not to use boiling water".
But Mothercare admitted that it was only continuing to sell BPA bottles because its timetable for removal had slipped. Britain's biggest mothering and infant-product retailer had planned to stop selling BPA bottles by January 2010; now the target was "the end of the autumn".
Mothercare said: "We anticipated that there would be a phasing-in period, during which time the new BPA-free stock would replace the previous ranges. However, the timescale of that phasing-out period has taken longer than we originally expected and we now anticipate that all our stock in stores will be BPA-free by the autumn."
Boots, owned by the private equity company KKR, said: "With the exception of Canada, polycarbonate, which is made from bisphenol A, is approved as a food-contact material worldwide. The vast amount of scientific evidence still supports its continued safe use."
Disney acknowledged that British parents were being offered different products to their counterparts in the US, where its BPA bottles are no longer on the shelves. By contrast, colourful Winnie-the-Pooh-branded bottles made last year are still on sale in the UK, three months after their last production date.
A Disney spokeswoman, Sandra van Vreedendaal, said: "As far as Europe is concerned they have said that amount of BPA does not pose a threat to human health. They consider the use of BPA to be safe. However we have decided to move to totally BPA-free with a final target of 2010. A number of our products in Europe are already BPA-free."
She added: "No Disney-branded Tommee Tippee products have been manufactured since 1 January, so any products in the market are old stock and will be phased out in time."
Breast Cancer UK has launched a campaign calling for the removal of BPA from baby products. Clare Dimmer, chair of trustees at the charity, said: "It's amazingly cynical that, despite the serious health concerns surrounding infant BPA exposure, retailers and manufacturers still find it perfectly acceptable to continue to sell BPA stock here despite similar products already being withdrawn from sale in the US and Canada.
"I think parents will be irate about these double standards and disappointed that retailers are not taking on board the full advice from scientists."
According to independent scientists, BPA may be an underlying cause of a collection of illnesses rapidly rising in the West, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, fertility problems and birth defects. Concern is greatest about its transmission from pregnant mothers to babies in the womb, and on young children.
One of a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, BPA interferes with the release of the female hormone oestrogen, and its impact is greatest on disorders associated with metabolism, fertility and neural development.
BPA is widely available in tins of food and canned drinks, where it is used to toughen the internal lining of tins. It is also used in a wide array of plastic products such as mobile phones, computers and medical equipment.
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on BPA, most of which have found harm to laboratory rodents and primates, and studies looking at the effects of BPA in humans have also found links to ill-health.
However, several studies funded by the chemical's manufacturer and involving large numbers of laboratory rodents have given BPA a clean bill of health. Regulators such as the Food Standards Agency have relied on this small number of industry-based studies in reaching their assessments that BPA is safe.
However, in January, the US FDA reversed its long-held position that BPA was harmless and announced it favoured its withdrawal from baby bottles – and would support the canning industry's search for alternatives.
Scientists have claimed that the American chemical industry has been overly powerful in its influence on the FDA, sparking a backlash from independent scientists prior to its U-turn. In December, seven experts from five British universities including London, Ulster and Stirling wrote to the Health Secretary Andy Burnham calling for a review of BPA.
A spokeswoman for Born Free, one of many BPA-free brands, said: "We believe that BPA has been one of the most studied chemicals for decades for a reason. Recent scientific research suggests that small amounts of BPA may leach into foods or beverages stored in polycarbonate containers, especially when the contents are acidic, high in fat, or heated.
"Research also suggests that BPA may act as an endocrine disruptor, a substance which mimics natural human hormones, and that babies and growing children are particularly at risk from exposure because they are still undergoing many hormone-mediated developmental processes.
"We believe that the use of BPA in baby-feeding products should be banned in its entirety. It is for this reason that our entire product portfolio has always been and always will be free from harmful chemicals such as BPA."
Breast Cancer UK's Ms Dimmer added: "Several hundred independent scientific studies have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals over the last decade that have established the low-dose effects of BPA.
"These studies include research conducted on cell cultures as well as mammalian animals and have identified potential increased risks in a whole host of chronic health conditions, including breast and prostate cancer, liver disease, diabetes, obesity, and even a potential impact on brain function. Scientists have also identified that young children and infants have the highest levels of exposure to BPA as they are less able to clear this chemical from their bodies."
She added: "This is especially troubling as infants and young children are in a rapid state of growth and development, and are potentially more susceptible to risks of exposure to BPA."
Professor Vyvyan Howard, professor of bioimaging at Ulster University, said regulators should adopt the precautionary avoidance of bisphenol A. "With our own children, who were breast-fed, we obtained glass feeding bottles for water and fruit juice," he said. "I consider that the weight of evidence is such that routine use of polycarbonate products should be avoided during pregnancy and for young infants."
A spokesman for Cancer Research UK said the evidence on BPA was insufficient to alarm parents. "No direct link between bisphenol A and breast cancer risk has been shown in humans," he said. "Some results from animal studies or work on cells in the laboratory point to the need for more research in this area.
"We acknowledge that there are some concerns about bisphenol A and its effects on other areas of human health. But it would be wrong to worry women unnecessarily about their risk of breast cancer based on what we know."
In The Independent tomorrow: more coverage of bisphenol A
Case study: 'The Government is not moving quickly enough in banning BPA in products'
John and Alison McHugh, an IT consultant and a strategic marketing manager, have been married for three-and-a-half years and live with their 13-month-old son, John-Patrick, in south Glasgow. Last year, the couple, both in their thirties, started the blog www.mindfulmum.co.uk after learning about the harmful affects of bisphenol A (BPA).
"Before Alison was pregnant, we had researched different recyclable plastics so we could find out how to be greener, and that's how we learnt about the harmful elements that are present in many plastics," said John. "But as soon as she became pregnant, like any parent, we stepped it up a gear. Such things move from an interest to a real concern.
"We consciously sought out BPA-free products during and after the pregnancy. We don't eat tinned food because of the BPA in them and we use glass baby-feeding bottles because they are recyclable and they are BPA-free. We did use some plastic ones but ensured they were BPA-free, like those made by BornFree.
"There is also BPA in some weaning products and we made sure we avoided any we were worried about, and very carefully checked all of the labels to see what they were made of.
"The fact that products containing BPA are still being sold without obvious labelling is atrocious. Mums have busy schedules and don't have time to decipher minuscule writing on the back of products to learn what they contain. Manufacturers have a responsibility to label their products appropriately.
"The Government should follow in the footsteps of Canada and a number of states in America by banning BPA in products but they're just not moving quick enough. There's just no excuse.
"There are parents writing on the blog who were not aware of the effects and fear that their child may have been exposed. The best advice we can give is to stay healthy and take folic acid, as research indicates this can reduce the effects.
"Parents should remember, though, that this is not their fault. It's the Government's for not moving fast enough and the manufacturers' for not being diligent enough."
Baby bottles: What the manufacturers say
The original Philips Avent reusable bottle is made from polycarbonate and contains BPA. However the company makes BPA-free alternatives made from polyethersulfone or polypropylene.
Avent said "Philips AVENT provides a range of solutions as a result of feedback from our consumers and discussions with our trade partners. We have expanded our existing range of BPA-free feeding solutions to provide parents with the choice they need. Philips looks to the authorities to guide us with regards to the materials we use."
The company said it had stopped putting BPA into its own-brand bottles, but was selling off old stock containing BPA. Boots also sells Winnie the Pooh-branded bottles containing BPA.
Boots said "All new Boots own-brand baby bottles are made from polypropylene, which does not contain BPA. The full range of Boots own-brand baby bottles is now free from BPA and there are only a small number of the now-discontinued Boots own baby bottles containing BPA on sale within some Boots stores."
The company's products have always been free from BPA. It argues that checkout staff should warn customers they are buying feeding bottles that contain BPA.
Born Free said "We believe that BPA has been one of the most studied chemicals for decades, for a reason. Recent scientific research suggests that small amounts of BPA may leach into foods or beverages stored in polycarbonate containers, especially when the contents are acidic, high in fat, or heated. Research also suggests that BPA may act as an endocrine disruptor, a substance which mimics natural human hormones, and that babies and growing children are particularly at risk from exposure because they are still undergoing many hormone-mediated developmental processes. At present only those products sold that are free from BPA are highlighted as such to consumers."
The company aims to become BPA-free by the end of 2010. It advises customers buying polycarbonate bottles to ensure that bottles are free from scratches or signs of wear, to replace them after six months' usage and not to use boiling water.
Mothercare said "In early 2009 Mothercare introduced its new BPA-free own-brand ranges into stores. We anticipated that there would be a phasing-in period, during which time the new BPA-free stock would replace the previous ranges. However, the timescale of that phasing out period has taken longer than we originally expected and we now anticipate that all our stock in stores will be BPA-free by the autumn. Mothercare takes the issue of product quality and safety extremely seriously and all our bottles and feeding equipment comply with strict European standards."
BPA-free bottles were "filtered through" from April 2009. The company is still phasing out BPA in Germany and other countries on the Continent.
NUK said "We moved to being BPA-free in 2009. That was as a result of listening to the concerns of parents. It took away any unnecessary anxiety. There's nothing wrong with BPA bottles. There's no strong claim to say there's anything harmful in them. There's no scientific evidence that BPA leaches out. It's a concern for parents and just because we could go BPA-free, we did."
The company removed BPA from its feeding bottles in January 2009, but it continued making Disney-branded bottles containing BPA until the end of 2009.
Tommee Tippee said "While there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support any alleged harmful side-effects of BPA in baby feeding products – as reiterated by the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency – we decided that as a responsible manufacturer and the brand leader that parents should have total reassurance."