Globe and Mail Editorial
Days before the federal government declared that it intended to categorize bisphenol A as a toxic substance, retailers were already whisking products containing the compound off their shelves. This, after The Globe revealed that a groundbreaking Health Canada report had concluded that BPA, the former wonder chemical, found in everything from water bottles to the lining of tin cans, constitutes or could constitute a danger to human life and health.
The assessment confirmed years of scientific suspicion. And, although Health Minister Tony Clement and Environment Minister John Baird are behind the curve of a consumer revolt, they deserve credit for their efforts to start action against the chemical. As Mr. Clement said on Friday, “We have concluded that it is better to be safe than sorry.”
The decision starts the clock ticking in a prescribed legal process to regulate the chemical, which is the key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic. There is now a 60-day period for public comment on proposals to list BPA as a toxic substance, to ban its presence in baby bottles, to restrict its effects on the contents in infant formula cans and to work with industry to develop alternative food packaging. Once that consultation process is over, Ottawa will have one year to issue a final report on its control measures.
That process might seem convoluted. But if Ottawa, in two months, classifies BPA as a toxic substance subject to regulation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999, it will be the first nation to do so.
First identified as a petroleum derivative around the turn of the last century, BPA is one of the most widely used synthetic compounds in modern industry. It is imported into Canada, and used as the starting material for polycarbonate, a durable, lightweight plastic that resembles glass.
In 1993, U.S. medical researchers observed that it was able to mimic the effect of the main female hormone in humans, and that it was leeching from plastic flasks into water at high temperatures. Since then, studies have linked low exposure to BPA in animal and test-tube experiments to illnesses such as cancer that are thought to originate in hormone imbalances. Perhaps not surprisingly, industry-funded studies have not been able to confirm the same effects.
Those days are over, as many retailers now offer refunds to customers who bought products containing polycarbonate, and industry executives prepare to sit down with federal officials to hammer out regulations. The Health Canada assessment listed numerous areas of particular concern, including the possible effect of BPA on prenatal development and on the consumption of fish that absorbed BPA from surface waters. Clearly, Ottawa is right to opt for the safe route.