A coalition of some of the world's leading scientists today calls on Britain to ban a widely used chemical linked to breast cancer, heart disease, obesity and hyperactivity.
In a letter published in The Independent, the scientists from the US, Britain and Italy say the Government should ban bisphenol-A (BPA) in any plastic used for baby bottles or baby food containers following a growing body of evidence suggesting it is dangerous.
Their call coincides with the publication of four new scientific studies which have contributed yet more evidence towards the potentially harmful effects of BPA. Last week Denmark became the first European country to ban BPA in food containers for children under the age of three. Canada and three US states have also brought in bans and the French are considering following suit.
In contrast Britain's Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority have resisted calls for a ban citing the minority of studies – some of which have been paid for by the plastics industry – which find it is safe.
But the scientists, who are leading toxicologists and cancer specialists studying the effects of BPA, say Britain is failing to protect the public's health and should make sure manufacturers use alternative plastics.
"To protect vulnerable populations, we believe it would be both prudent and precautionary in public health terms if products containing BPA used for baby and children's food and liquid packaging in the UK were withdrawn," they write. "BPA should be replaced by less hazardous substances."
BPA is widely used in the plastics industry to strengthen food containers. But it has been classified as an "endocrine disruptor" and is thought to interfere with the body's delicate hormone system. Last week The Independent exposed how leading high-street retailers, including Boots and Mothercare, were still selling baby bottles containing BPA even though most mainstream manufacturers have abandoned their BPA lines. Boots has agreed to phase out BPA bottles "in a couple of weeks" and Mothercare will stop selling the products by the end of autumn.
After years of insisting BPA posed no risk to health, America's Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) is now advising that "reasonable steps" should be taken to minimise exposure.
The four new studies lend weight to research suggesting BPA is harmful in much lower doses than previously thought. The first is a paper from the University of Michigan which found how endocrine disruptors, including BPA, have a harmful impact on men's health, specifically in reproduction, development and metabolism.
Research using mice at the Italian Endometriosis Foundation in Rome linked BPA to endometriosis, a chronic gynaecological disease. The third study, from Tufts University in Boston, was critical of two previous studies that had suggested human BPA exposure was negligible.
A fourth study, to be published by the University of Auckland in New Zealand later this month, has discovered that even very low doses of BPA can pass across the human placenta, damaging children in the womb.
"These new studies are significant because they all indicate and confirm the growing body of evidence that suggests BPA is harmful even in minute doses," said Professor Andrew Watterson, a signatory to the letter, who works at the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at the University of Stirling. "The vast majority of scientific studies in the past year or so have confirmed our concerns about BPA which is why we are in favour of a precautionary and preventative approach to its use. Until we know more about the harm it could be doing we should stop using it."
Professor Ana Soto, one of the world's leading authorities on endocrine disruptors, who works at Tufts University's School of Medicine, said European health bodies should follow Denmark's lead. "There are now hundreds of papers that have been published looking at the harmful effects of bisphenol-A and the majority have concluded that it is a chemical with serious concerns," she said.
Last night Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the Food Standards Agency, explained why it was opposed to a temporary ban. "We will always base our advice to consumers on the best available scientific evidence," he said. "Independent scientific experts advise that current levels of exposure to BPA are not harmful. The European Food Safety Authority review concluded that low-dose effects of BPA in rodents have not been demonstrated in a robust and reproducible way, and so cannot be used as pivotal studies for risk assessment. EFSA is currently reviewing more recent research in this area and the UK is actively involved in this. We keep our advice to consumers under constant review."