Scientists have rounded on the Government for refusing to take action on a controversial chemical widely used in baby bottles – even though other countries have begun bringing in their own bans.
Denmark has become the first European country to forbid the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in any food containers for young children, amid growing scientific evidence which suggests the chemical could inhibit brain development and lead to serious health issues.
Most mainstream baby bottle manufacturers have already begun producing BPA-free lines, but an investigation by The Independent this week revealed how leading high-street retailers, including Boots and Mothercare, were still selling off older bottles containing the chemical.
Boots has since said it will phase out BPA bottles within "a couple of weeks" but Mothercare will continue to sell them until early August.
The British Government is resisting any sort of ban and continues to insist that BPA poses no threat to public health. Its stance contrasts with that of a growing number of Western governments which have decided to err on the side of caution and bring in temporary bans until more evidence emerges.
Canada and three states in the US have already forbidden the chemical in baby products, and the French Senate has backed a temporary ban.
There has also been a major shift in attitude towards the health implications of BPA in the US. After years of insisting that the chemical posed no risk, America's Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) changed its position in January and advised that "reasonable steps" should be taken to minimise exposure to the chemical.
America's second largest public health body, the Environmental Protection Agency, also announced this week that it would examine the potential risks of BPA to the environment.
Scientists and cancer specialists last night called on Britain to follow Denmark's and Canada's lead by bringing in a temporary ban on any baby bottles which contain BPA.
Clare Dimmer, chair of trustees at Breast Cancer UK, said: "The move by the Danes to ban the use of BPA in food contact products marketed at the under- three's stands in stark contrast to the inertia of our own Government and Food Standards Agency. The UK's present position is incompatible with the growing consensus within the scientific community and leaves babies and infants exposed to unnecessary health risks that could be dealt with quite simply and at little or no cost to business."
Vyvyan Howard, professor of bioimaging at Ulster University, believes that the Government should be prepared to take a preventive approach to public health, even without unequivocal evidence of BPA's risks.
"The fact that Denmark has taken this decision reinforces what a growing number of scientists have been saying – that the evidence against BPA and its potential health risks on the very young is really quite strong," he said.
"Within toxicology the adoption of any stance is a very slow process, which means governmental decision-makers sometimes have to be prepared to make a decision on a substance even if there is an absence of absolute certainty."
Professor Andrew Watterson, a health specialist at the University of Stirling, added: "I'm not surprised that the Danes have looked at the toxicological evidence and decided to be careful. Denmark is light years ahead of the UK when it comes to public health, and their whole approach is geared towards prevention and precaution."
BPA, which is used widely in food packaging to strengthen plastic, is an endocrine disruptor that interrupts hormones. In recent laboratory tests on animals it has been linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, hyperactivity and behavioural problems.
A growing body of scientific data also suggests that babies are particularly at risk from even very low doses. The plastics industry has rejected such suggestions, pointing to industry-funded studies involving rodents that have shown no harm arising from the use of the chemical.
The Food Standards Agency, which is in charge of deciding which chemicals are dangerous to our health, has dismissed calls for a ban. It continues to take its lead from the European Food Safety Authority, which decided two years ago that BPA was safe. However, critics have claimed that the scientific data the agency used to reach that conclusion was outdated.
"EFSA published risk assessments on BPA in 2007 and 2008 which concluded that exposure levels are below the maximum safe limit for all groups of the population," a spokesperson for the Food Standards Agency said last night. "This thorough review, which considered available low- dose studies, provides reassurance about the safety of bisphenol A at the levels that may be found in food and drink for adults and children. The Agency was set up with the specific aim of protecting public health, and it simply would not be in our interest to ignore any evidence that our scientists believe showed people's health was being put at risk."
But Clare Dimmer disagrees: "UK regulators and the Government should no longer be considering whether they should be banning BPA use in infant food contact products, but setting a deadline now for when this step will be taken," she said. "In our view this should be immediately."