A new report is warning about the dangers of popular plastic baby bottle brands sold in Canada, noting that when heated, the bottles can release potentially harmful chemicals.
The study, commissioned by the Canadian group Environmental Defence, found that the bottles ooze bisphenol A (BPA) into the beverage inside in levels that surprised even the researchers.
Researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia were asked to test nine polycarbonate bottles from three manufacturers — Playtex, Avent and Gerber. The bottles were filled with water and heated in an oven at 80 degress Celsius, to simulate how the plastic would react to dozens of washings.
The laboratory tests detected 5-8 nanograms per milliliter (parts per billion) of bisphenol A leached out of all the bottles when they were heated — a level that Environmental Defence calls “very significant.”
All the Playtex products leaked BPA, regardless of whether they were heated or not. All three of the Gerber bottles and one of the Avent bottles had no detectible levels of BPA in fluids stored at room temperature.
Researcher Julia Taylor, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says the results disturbed her.
“They were a little scary. You don’t like to think that that amount of chemical would leech out into milk contained in a bottle, but clearly that’s a potential problem,” she told CTV News.
Taylor notes that the study represented how many parents typically use the bottles, heating them to sterilize them and then adding heated liquids, such as breast milk, formula or cow’s milk.
“That tells us that with repeated use and repeated heating and increased damage to the bottles that would come through washing, we would see increased amount of bisphenol leaching out as the bottles age,” she says.
Industry calls study ‘scare tactics’
The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, the industry group representing the bottle manufacturers says the levels detected in the study are still considered “safe,” and says it “stands by the scientific research indicating that plastic baby bottles are safe and reassures consumers not to fall victim to scare tactics.”
“There is irrefutable data available on the safety of Bisphenol-A,” the group said in a statement. “In spite of this strong scientific support, misinformation about polycarbonate baby bottles continues to circulate and as a result is needlessly scaring parents and caregivers away from a trusted and safe product.”
Rick Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defence, disagrees, saying that recent research suggests that even lower levels of BPA exposure can alter cell function.
“What the results show is that Canadian babies are being contaminated by the very bottles that are supposed to be giving them life and nutrition,” he says.
Environmental Defence says while the testing focused on nine brands, they believe the results can be considered indicative of almost all polycarbonate plastic baby bottles sold in North America.
CTV News asked for comment on the study from each of the three manufacturers. Gerber Canada and Avent have not yet provided responses; Playtex referred us to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association statement.
Bisphenol A has been the focus of much scrutiny in recent years, with worries that the chemical mimics estrogen. There are fears it can cause earlier onset of puberty in girls, declining sperm counts, and raise the risk of breast and prostate cancer.
But most of the scientific evidence demonstrating the effects of BPA have been conducted on laboratory animals such as mice, so there is little clinical evidence of the chemical’s effect on humans.
While BPA is not bioaccumulative (meaning it doesn’t persist in the environment or build up in fat stores), the European Commission recently classified the chemical for reproductive toxicity.
Health Canada conducting ‘high priority’ evaluation
For its part, Health Canada says it’s currently conducting a “high priority” evaluation of the safety of bisphenol A, with a report due this May.
In a statement released this week to CTV News, it noted: “Health Canada is conducting several different studies on the leaching rate of bisphenol A. One of these studies does look at bottles first filled with boiling water. These results will be considered in the risk assessment as well as other potential consumer use scenarios.
“Health Canada is aware that bisphenol A (BPA) migration from polycarbonate bottles is temperature dependent and in its assessment of BPA is reviewing the results of other Canadian and international studies.”
Last week, a report in the journal Toxicology Letters found that polycarbonate plastic drinking bottles release BPA 55 times more rapidly and in higher amounts than when they were filled with room temperature water.
When the bottles were filled with cool water, the rate of BPA release ranged from 0.2 to 0.8 nanograms per hour. After the bottles were exposed to boiling water, rates increased to 8 to 32 nanograms per hour.
Smith says precautionary action should be taken now.
“The federal and provincial governments should immediately ban this chemical from food and beverage containers,” he says. “And if any parents have these bottles at home, they should get rid of them immediately.”
Environmental Defence is also encouraging retailers to stop selling products that contain BPA. Both Mountain Equipment Co-op and Lululemon recently chose to take polycarbonate plactic drinking bottles off their shelves.
Worried parents can switch back to traditional glass bottles, though the bottles do carry the risk of breakage. There is also a new generation of BPA-free plastic bottles now being sold in North America and Europe, mostly in health food stores and specialty baby stores.
Julie Daniluk of the Toronto health food store The Big Carrot says the line of BPA-free products they stock has sold well for years, but she is now expecting a spike in sales with the release of this new report.
“We plan on trying to do a massive order of to accommodate people the second the research gets out,” she told CTV earlier this week. “We will have a hard time keeping it in stock.”
Environmental Defence offers these tips to parents who continue to use polycarbonate bottles:

do not use harsh detergents or put bottles in the dishwasher. These factors help to degrade the plastic and break down the bonds to release bisphenol A.
Instead, clean polycarbonate bottles with warm, soapy water and a sponge.
Avoid heating polycarbonate containers in the microwave; use glass or ceramic containers instead.
Avoid using infant formula in cans lined with a white, epoxy liner, which is also thought to contain bisphenol A.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip