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Europe tightens 'gender bender' chemical rules

Martin Hickman,Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 27 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Europe has tightened controls on a "gender bender" chemical present in food and drinks which has been linked to breast cancer, fertility problems and other illnesses.

The European Commission announced a ban on the manufacture of baby bottles containing Bisphenol A, or BPA, on 1 March next year and their importation and sale on 1 June.

Many companies have already removed the plastics hardener from baby bottles, but it remains in the lids of jars of baby foods as well as in a wide array of consumer products including tinned food, fizzy drinks, till receipts, mobile phones and computers.

The ban is a sign of increasing concerned among regulators about the chemical, which mimics the female hormone oestrogen. Surveys show it is present in the bodies of more than 90 per cent of Westerners.

The plastics and chemicals industries insist BPA is safe, a view backed by some leading scientists, such as Professor Richard Sharpe, a fertility expert at the Medical Research Council.

The ban announced by he European Commissioner for Health, John Dalli, brings European regulation closer into line with US action. After years of insisting BPA was safe, the US Food and Drug Administration announced in January it had "some concern" about its potential effects on the brain, behaviour and the prostate glands of foetuses, babies and young children, and called for industry to remove it.

Independently-funded scientists suggest BPA poses a risk to human health, particularly among babies and infants with undeveloped immune systems. Some scientists fear it could cause a range of diseases, including breast and prostate cancers as well as attention deficit disorders, fertility problems and obesity – all of which are rising in the West.

Until now Europe has always agreed with tests funded by the chemicals industry showing that BPA was safe. In September, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) disregarded many independent peer-reviewed studies in favour of these industry studies, adding that there were still uncertainties about the substance. France and Denmark, did not agree with the EFSA and refused to revoke their own bans on BPA in baby bottles.

Referring to the EFSA's uncertainties, Mr Dalli told The Independent this week: "The EFSA decision was such that it indicated that there are doubts that Bisphenol effect can be harmful, it can be a tumour stimulator and it can also affect other things. And on that decision we decided to ban the use of Bisphenol A in baby bottles."

An investigation by the German state broadcaster ARD last week uncovered several undeclared links between EFSA members and the chemicals industry.

Mr Dalli said he was completely assured of EFSA's independence, but said he wanted to improve vetting of its members to ensure it was "beyond reproach".

He said: "We have been talking to the EFSA to improve and solidify its processes on the independence issue. I am pushing for a specific audit and due diligence processes on people who apply to become panel members and, also people who have participated in panels, to make sure that the declarations that are made are based on facts and there is no conflict of interest in the people who are taking the decisions.

"The samples of panellists, existing or past, would be selected at random, so there is also a deterrent factor on this," he added.

Industry lobbying for BPA has been intense. In documents obtained by The Independent, a secretive US lobby company the Weinberg Group boasted how it had helped scupper the last EU attempt to increase regulation of BPA in 2001, saying its work had been "designed to target political hot buttons, such as the risk to high-tech jobs".

Gwynne Lyons, director of CHEM Trust, said: "We are pleased the EC has now reduced infant exposure from BPA in baby bottles, but that is only one small step. BPA is used in many products, including food cans and some till receipts, and tests show that most people are constantly exposed."

Professor Sharpe said: "Personally, I think this is an over-reaction, but if satisfactory replacements chemicals are available, then this can be done to placate those calling for action, but scientifically it's a retrograde step."

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