OTTAWA - Health Canada scientists have found bisphenol A leaching into the liquid of plastic baby bottles marketed to parents as being free of the toxic chemical.
The study says "traces" of the toxin were found in "BPA-free" bottles while internal correspondence between a department official and the lead scientist went further, characterizing the amounts in two brands as "high readings."
Manufacturers of non-polycarbonate plastic baby bottles, however, were quick to challenge the "shocking" results, saying there must be a problem with the way the agency conducted the research.
Government scientists conducted the tests on non-polycarbonate bottles last year after Health Canada announced an imminent ban on polycarbonate plastic baby bottles.
By then, the market had already been flooded with "BPA-free" alternatives made of substitute plastics without any bisphenol A, which were pitched as an option for parents concerned about the health risks associated with the newly labelled toxin.
Bisphenol A, a hormone disrupter that can cause reproductive damage and may lead to prostate and breast cancer in adulthood, is used as a building block in polycarbonate plastic, but not in the substitutes, such as polypropylene.
The test results surprised Health Canada scientists involved, according to records released to Canwest News Service under the Access to Information Act.
"This bottle is labelled polypropylene which should contain no BPA," the lead scientist wrote to a colleague, recommending another analysis be done to "verify the claim" and "check more samples."
The brand mentioned in the correspondence is blacked out on the grounds that the information could result in financial loss or prejudice the competitive advantage of a company.
In separate correspondence, a Health Canada official wrote to the scientist - under the subject heading "Migration of Bisphenol A from 'BPA Free' Baby Bottles and Liners" - to thank him for other results.
"We would definitely like to do a material characterization for the two brands with high readings and would also like to test the other brands too at the same time."
The records show Health Canada tested about nine different brands of baby bottles using non-polycarbonate plastic for possible leaching of BPA, chosen because they're made with a type of plastic that does not use the chemical as a building block.
In a recently published summary of the test results, researchers suggest the "traces of BPA found to migrate from these bottles could be artifacts of the manufacturing process."
And since these "BPA-free" bottles leached less than polycarbonate plastic bottles under conditions designed to simulate repeated normal use, the government researchers concluded these bottles made of polysulfone, polystyrene or polypropylene (non-PC) are a "reasonable alternative" to the banned polycarbonate (PC) bottles.
"The average BPA concentration in non-PC baby bottles after 10 days at high temperature (60 C) was similar to the levels found in PC bottles after 24 hours at 40 C. This is a good indication that non-PC baby bottles may be considered as appropriate alternatives to PC bottles, in order to minimize exposure BPA from PC-plastic baby bottles."
University of Missouri's Frederick vom Saal, a leading researcher into bisphenol A and other endocrine disrupters, said Health Canada's test results are a "wake-up" call for bottle manufacturers and consumers.
"This really is a truly ubiquitous chemical. It's very sticky. It's on dust, it's on everything. It is possible at very, very small amounts that you could maybe detect it in something, but most of these assays are not sensitive enough to pick up a hitchhiker," he said.
"You're picking it up because it's actually a component of the plastic that it's in, and that's a little unnerving to find that people are reporting this coming out of other plastic products like polypropylene."
And even if trace amounts can be explained away as a result of environmental contamination, companies need to revisit their manufacturing processes, said vom Saal.
Leading manufacturers of non-polycarbonate plastic baby bottles said there's no way their bottles leach any amount of bisphenol A, even in trace amounts.
"We have not only three major global testing labs that test our products, but we also do biologic testing on our bottles, and the biologic type of testing is even more sensitive than anything that Health Canada could ever pull off, and it would pick up anything that even behaved like BPA," said Kevin Brodwick, founder and president of thinkbaby, whose products are made with medical-grade plastic specifically formulated to be free of bisphenol A, PVC, nitrosamines, phthalates, lead, melamine and biologically toxic chemicals.
Test results, conducted at least every quarter, consistently show "zero, complete non-detect for BPA," said Brodwick.
"It sounds more like Health Canada has an issue of their equipment not being clean."
BornFree Canada president Tony Ferraro echoed this sentiment, saying several independent tests have all found "no detection" of the chemical in his company's bottles.
"It is extremely difficult to comprehend otherwise" because bisphenol A is not contained or added to the resin or additives during the manufacturing practice," said Ferraro. "I can conclude with 100 per cent accuracy and confidence that any possibility of trace amounts of bisphenol A in BornFree products is unlikely and impossible."
Corina Crawley, meanwhile, wants Health Canada to fully release the study's details, including brands and methodology.
The Ottawa mother sought out BPA-free bottles when her son was born two years ago, expecting all products to be "100 per cent free" of the chemical.
She said details should be released "for the public to decide."
"As a parent, there are risks associated with BPA, but I don't know anything about the science of trace amounts," said Crawley. "What are the amounts that matter?"