Ministry knew of baby milk risk for four years

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The Independent Online
The Government knew four years ago that baby milk was contaminated by phthalates, the chemicals suspected of impairing human fertility, but decided not to publish the information.

The Ministry of Agriculture admitted last week that scientists working at its CSL Food Science Laboratories in Norwich had found the chemicals at the centre of last week's row in baby milk in 1992. But the results remained "unpublished".

This admission will heighten concern about the Government's lack of openness about phthalates. Last week, ministers were embroiled in a fierce dispute after they refused to identify brands of baby milk found to contain high levels of the potentially "gender-bending" chemicals. The row followed an exclusive report in the Independent on Sunday last week that levels of the chemicals found in the milk last year were close to those found to reduce the size of testes and cut rat sperm counts.

Few results of the unpublished tests are available, but the ministry has disclosed that the most abundant phthalate identified in 1992 was the same as in last year's tests: di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). Studies in Britain and Sweden suggest it mimics the female hormone oestrogen and could affect reproduction, though to a lesser extent than the two potentially most harmful phthalates identified in the more recent government research. On Friday, EU officials declared "there is no imminent danger to babies" from the levels of phthalates found. But the EU's Tolerable Daily Intake levels for the chemicals were set before it was found that they can mimic oestrogen.

Ministry of Agriculture documents reveal it was told nine years ago that tests on the dangers of phthalates were inadequate. Yesterday, Gwynne Lyons, Scientific Advisor to the World Wide Fund for Nature and a member of a government round-table investigating the chemicals, accused the ministry of "shelving" the results of its 1992 tests and added: "Regulators need to stamp on industries' gung-ho attitude to releasing potentially harmful chemicals into the environment and into our food."

Inside story, pages 16 & 17