December 7, 2007
Country's largest specialty outdoor-goods retailer cites concern over possible health risks

By MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT, From Friday's Globe and Mail

Mountain Equipment Co-op, the country's largest specialty outdoor-goods retailer, says it has pulled most food and beverage containers made of polycarbonate plastic from its shelves, citing concern over possible health risks.

The Vancouver-based firm been one of the largest sellers of such products as polycarbonate Nalgene water bottles, and probably has done more than any retailer to make the distinctive, brightly coloured containers an iconic product everywhere from backcountry campsites to urban offices and university campuses.

The retailer didn't issue a public announcement that it removed the containers, but made a decision to take action Monday and instructed staff to cart polycarbonate products out of stores Wednesday.

The plastic in question is made mostly from bisphenol A, which mimics estrogen and is derived from petrochemicals.

It has been linked in dozens of independent research studies to illnesses that could be caused by hormone disruption. However, manufacturers of bisphenol A say their research shows the material to be harmless.

Health Canada is conducting an assessment of bisphenol A and trying to sort out the conflicting evidence. It expects to issue preliminary results of its review next spring, and a final report on the safety of the chemical in 2009. The Ontario government is also looking at the chemical.

Mountain Equipment said it will keep polycarbonate products out of stores, pending results of the federal review.

“The products have been pulled from the shelves and we're no longer selling them,” said Tim Southam, a spokesman for the retailer, which has 11 stores, annual sales of about $222-million and requires customers to pay a membership fee.

“We've been following this issue quite closely and it's one we've seen an increasing concern [about] among some members,” Mr. Southam said of the health controversy.

A spokesman for Nalgene's manufacturer, Nalge Nunc International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., said it believes Mountain Equipment is the first major retailer in North America to pull its polycarbonate bottles based on health worries.

“From our perspective, it's certainly unfortunate because we feel there is a body of evidence” supporting the safety of the product, Eric Hanson said. He added that the retailer's action won't affect all of its products because the company also markets containers that do not contain bisphenol A.

Mr. Southam said Mountain Equipment, which is a big marketer of camping gear and outdoor clothing, doesn't expect to take a financial hit from the action because it is selling alternative products, such as stainless-steel water bottles. He wasn't immediately able to give the sales value of the affected items.

Environmental Defence, a Toronto group that has been lobbying Health Canada to ban bisphenol A from food and beverage uses, praised the retailer and said other companies should follow its lead.

“The fact that a retailer of this size, dealing in this volume of polycarbonate products, would make this decision should be a real wake-up call to other retailers,” Richard Smith, executive director of the group, said.