The federal government announced Friday it intends to ban the import and sale of polycarbonate baby bottles containing bisphenol A, making Canada the first country in the world to limit exposure to the controversial chemical.

Health Minister Tony Clement told reporters at an Ottawa news conference the ban would come into force barring new information from a 60-day public comment period.

"We've concluded it's better to be safe than sorry," said Clement.

The ban would affect only baby bottles and not other food containers made with bisphenol A (BPA).

Clement said Health Canada's assessment shows that in most instances, negative health effects occur at levels much greater than those to which Canadians are exposed. 

"This is not the case for newborns and infants," he added. "We have concluded that early development is sensitive to the effects of bisphenol A. Although our science tells us that exposure levels to newborns and infants are below levels that cause effects, we believe the current safety margin needs to be higher."

Clement also said Canadians can continue to use hard plastic reusable water bottles and plastic tableware and that Health Canada "will be providing some advice on how to use them properly."

BPA is a synthetic chemical compound found in some hard, clear plastics and resins such as food and drink containers, compact discs, electronics and the liners in many metal cans.

The minister said Health Canada's assessment is that the chemical does not pose a health concern for most Canadians.

Clement also said the government intends to work with industry to reduce the use of BPA in cans containing infant formula, but stressed that the health benefits of formula outweigh the potential risks presented by BPA.

On Thursday, a string of major retailers pulled plastic products containing the substance off their shelves in anticipation of a government announcement on BPA.

Studies in peer-reviewed journals have indicated that even at low doses, the chemical can increase breast and ovarian cancer-cell growth and the growth of some prostate cancer cells in animals.

Health Canada began reassessing bisphenol A, along with a number of other chemicals, in November 2007. The review looked at human and animal studies around the world into how much of the chemical is leaching from consumer products, such as plastic baby bottles and water bottles.

But the plastics industry has vigorously defended the chemical, noting that it's been widely used for 50 years.

In a release Friday, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said it respected the Canadian government's decision, while noting the assessment "confirms that health risks to the general population in Canada from exposure to bisphenol A are negligible."

While many retailers have already begun removing BPA products from their shelves, the packaging industry warns that a sudden ban on BPA could have a devastating economic impact, forcing people out of work in a number of industries.

Nalgene Outdoor Products — a manufacturer of popular water bottles made from hard, clear polycarbonate — announced Friday it will stop producing the containers because they are made with BPA.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based company said it will phase out production over the next several months, but will continue to make containers from materials that do not contain the chemical.

Most of the concern surrounding the health implications of the chemical is linked to food and drink containers. While plastic baby and water bottles have garnered a lot of media attention, Cassandra Polyzou at Toronto-based Environmental Defence said canned foods are more worrisome.

Tin cans are not labelled with the symbol — the number seven inside a triangle — that marks water bottles containing BPA.

"And every tin can is heated, so there's almost a guarantee some BPA has leaked into the food," she told CBC News.

Polyzou said some studies have also shown tin can liners containing BPA break down more readily when they come into contact with fatty food such as fish and acidic food such as tomatoes and apple juice. It also breaks down more readily in the presence of alcohol.

With files from Sharon Oosthoek