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Bottle Maker to Stop Using Plastic Linked to Health Concerns

Ian Austen|The New York Times
Friday, 18 Apr 2008 | 10:46 AM ET

Nalgene, the brand that popularized water bottles made from hard, clear and nearly

unbreakable polycarbonate, will stop using the plastic because of growing concern over one of its ingredients.

Nalgene brand water bottles had used bisphenol-a, which some studies in animals linked to hormonal changes.

The decision by Nalgene Outdoor Products, a unit of Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Rochester, came after reports that the Canadian government would declare the chemical bisphenol-a, or BPA, toxic. Some animal studies have linked the chemical to changes in the hormonal system.

Those reports also prompted many of Canada’s largest retailers, including Wal-Mart Canada, to remove food-related products made with plastics containing the compound chemical, like baby bottles, toddler sipping cups and food containers, from their stores this week.

“Based on all available scientific evidence, we continue to believe that Nalgene products containing BPA are safe for their intended use,” Steven Silverman, the general manager of the Nalgene unit, said in a statement. “However, our customers indicated they preferred BPA-free alternatives, and we acted in response to those concerns.”

The National Toxicology Program in the United States released a draft report on Tuesday reporting that some rats that were fed or injected with low doses of the chemical developed precancerous tumors and urinary tract problems and reached puberty early. While the report said the animal tests provided “limited evidence,” it also noted that the “possibility that bisphenol-a may alter human development cannot be dismissed.”

Late Thursday, the American Chemistry Council, which says that there is no evidence suggesting that the chemical has an adverse impact on people, asked the Food and Drug Administration to review the chemical.

“We hope that the leading regulatory agency charged with protecting the public’s health, including evaluating the safety of food containers, will put to rest questions about the safety of bisphenol-a,” the industry group said.

Nalgene’s decision to drop the plastic that transformed it from an obscure maker of laboratory equipment into a consumer brand does not mean the company is leaving the drinking bottle business. It has long made bottles from other plastics that lack the glasslike transparency and rigidity that made polycarbonate popular.

Last month, Nalgene introduced a line of bottles made from a relatively new plastic from the Eastman Chemical Company, Tritan copolyester, that shares most of polycarbonate’s properties, including shatter-resistance, but is made without the chemical.

A person knowledgeable about Canada’s chemical review program said this week that the government had decided to list the compound as a toxic substance under the country’s environmental protection act. Because of confidentiality rules, he spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Tony Clement, the minister of health, has scheduled a news conference for Friday to discuss the issue.

Designation of the chemical will begin a two-year regulatory process that ultimately could lead to restrictions or a ban on the use of the compound.

But some retailers in Canada say that interest in food-related products made with the chemical, particularly those intended for infants and small children, is fast vanishing.

“Consumer demand for BPA products had largely dried up,” said Hillary Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The retailer removed all baby-related products made with plastics that contained the chemical from its 94 department stores and 280 Zellers discount stores this week. It is working on removing other merchandise made with polycarbonates.

Not all consumers are pleased by the actions. Because of Health Canada’s review, London Drugs, which is based in Richmond, British Columbia, began withdrawing merchandise that contained the chemical Jan. 10 and replacing it with alternatives made of other plastics or stainless steel. Wynne Powell, the company’s president, said the last 10 products were taken away this week.

“I had some complaints come to my desk complaining that we were fear-mongering by pulling products,” Mr. Powell said. “The public was not totally on board.”

Asked whether it plans to follow the lead of its Canadian operations in the United States, Wal-Mart said in a statement, “We are working to expand our BPA-free offerings and expect the entire assortment of baby bottles to be BPA-free sometime early next year.”

A difficult question for retailers will be how to handle products, including soft drinks, that are packaged in aluminum or steel cans.

For the last two decades, the interiors of most cans have been coated with an epoxy resin that is made using the chemical to extend the shelf life of the contents and prevent the metal from affecting the flavors of food and drinks.

John M. Rost, the chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, an industry group, said that there was no evidence that the linings expose humans to significant amounts of the chemical, a position not shared by all scientists. He added that researchers had been unable to develop an alternative lining that performs as well as the current epoxy.

“The epoxy resins are the gold standard right now,” said Dr. Rost, who is a chemist. “The speculation of what’s to be published has led to reactions from retailers that is not based on any actual data from Health Canada. So we are encouraging a release as soon as possible.”

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