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Canadian stores race to purge bisphenol A products

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HBC, Forzani Group leading the charge

MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT

ENVIRONMENT REPORTER

April 16, 2008

Major retailers across the country yesterday began clearing their shelves of products made with a compound that Health Canada is expected to declare a potentially dangerous chemical as early as today.

In reaction to a Globe and Mail report that Health Canada is poised to take action on bisphenol A, or BPA, the widely used compound in polycarbonate plastic, Forzani Group Ltd., one of Canada's largest sporting goods retailers, issued a statement saying it has replaced all water bottles containing BPA in its stores with alternatives that do not contain the substance. Hudson's Bay Co., which includes the Bay and Zellers, e-mailed a statement to The Canadian Press saying it would do likewise. Both retailers plan to offer refunds to customers.

Later yesterday, Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. announced that it too will remove plastic water bottles and food-storage containers that are known to contain BPA from all Canadian Tire, Mark's Work Wearhouse and PartSource stores.

Bob Sartor, chief executive officer of Forzani, which has more than 500 stores across Canada including Sport Check, Athlete's World and Coast Mountain Sports, told The Canadian Press that yesterday's Globe and Mail report was "sufficient cause to take the high road and get it off the shelf. We are doing this out of an overabundance of caution."

The retail moves come as a key U.S. government agency that evaluates harmful substances released a draft report linking exposures to BPA to breast cancer and the earlier age of puberty in girls. The report, by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, was issued yesterday and indicates that there is rising concern about BPA at regulatory bodies in both the United States and Canada.

Health Canada is expected to issue a risk assessment this week that BPA is a potentially dangerous chemical, a move that could lead to some restrictions in its use, particularly for consumer applications that are likely to come into direct contact with foods or beverages.

The action by the Canadian government would be the first by any country to label the chemical used for decades in everything from baby bottles and the lacquer linings inside tin cans to dental sealants a possible health hazard.

"It looks as if the regulatory authorities looking at the potential risks of bisphenol A are moving toward consensus, that there is a problem," observed Pete Myers, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, a non-profit, public health organization based in Charlottesville, Va. and concerned with chemical pollutants.

The Canadian assessment process is far ahead of that of the United States, which is at a preliminary stage.

Governments are reviewing the safety of BPA because its molecular shape is similar to estrogen, which allows it to mimic the female hormone in living things. It is also biologically active at extremely low concentrations, just like natural hormones, leading to concerns that the tiny amounts leaching from food and beverage containers could be a health threat.

Dozens of studies by independent researchers have linked low exposure to BPA in animal and test-tube experiments to illnesses, such as cancer, that are thought to have an origin in hormone imbalances, although industry-funded studies haven't been able to find the same effects.

In the United States, the toxicology program report is being deemed a significant about-face by scientists toward BPA because it accepted as plausible the results of the many laboratory experiments in which test animals were given the chemical through injection, rather than orally through food or water, according to Mr. Myers.

Injection tests, which deliver the chemical directly to the blood stream, have been controversial because most adult human exposures are through food, leading much of the BPA to be turned into a harmless compound by liver enzymes. Consequently, the plastics industry had discounted injection experiments as having little applicability to people.

But the program concluded that injection studies are a valid way to test the effects of BPA during childhood, when the liver's ability to produce the enzymes to detoxify the chemical isn't fully developed.

The report also found that "estimated exposures [of BPA] in pregnant women and fetuses, infants, and children are similar" to the levels used in many low-dose animal experiments that have found effects on the brain and behaviour, prostate and mammary gland development, and early onset of sexual maturity in females.

It concluded that "the possibility that human development may be altered by bisphenol A at current exposure levels cannot be dismissed."