Many consumers in Canada and the U.S. are avoiding polycarbonate water bottles because of the fear of exposure to the chemical bisephenol-A (BPA).

Several months ago, two Canadian agencies-Health Canada and Environment Canada-published a draft risk assessment for bisphenol-A (BPA). It declared that the substance is “toxic” within the meaning of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

The agencies proposed to reduce exposure to BPA to newborns and infants by minimizing BPA migration from can-coating resins used in infant formula and banning baby bottles made of polycarbonate.

Barely noticed was the government’s further conclusion that potential exposures to BPA from other uses, including polycarbonate water bottles, do not pose a risk.

Coming on the heels of a draft report from the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) concluding that there is “some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures,” (emphasis added)-and a well orchestrated campaign by the Environmental Working Group to draw media attention to the matter-several retailers (including Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us)  and bottle manufacturers announced that they would stop selling BPA-containing baby bottles.

Shortly thereafter, a bill was introduced in the California legislature that would ban BPA in food and beverage containers for children aged three and under. A bill had been introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier in the year to ban BPA in all children’s products. What risk?In the face of this firestorm, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed, once again, the available exposure and toxicology data for BPA and concluded that “an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses.” It specifically found a margin of safety for infant exposure greater than three orders of magnitude and, for adults, greater than five orders of magnitude.

FDA’s determination was essentially in agreement with that made by two European Union agencies, the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemical Bureau, both of which found current levels of exposure to BPA to be safe.

So goes the air of out of the balloon created by Canada’s precipitous announcement to ban a product based on a hurried risk assessment that substituted the precautionary principle for sound science. Unfortunately, in its wake, it still leaves a product that has been badly scarred by the tag of “toxic.”

Nor is this likely the last bad determination of this sort we are likely to see out of Canada. BPA is only one of 198 chemicals being assessed by Environment and Health Canada over the course of the next few years as part of its Chemical Management Program. The program is conducted on an incredibly tight schedule that leaves little time to consider in-depth the quality and relevancy of safety data, and is heavily skewed towards the principle of “when in doubt, throw it out.”

Although Canadian authorities may think that mistaken judgments can be corrected if new data is developed or the weight of the evidence suggests later that drastic measures such as product bans may not be necessary, once a product is branded as toxic by a government, the damage is done. Deselection begins, factories close and jobs are lost. Canada must give serious consideration to the consequences of its decisions lest it cause economic disruption with no benefit to public health. F&BP