I suspect it is safe to say that anyone reading this article is likely aware of the term “BPA-free” in relation to plastic products. Whilst not BPA aware people will fully understand the chemistry of BPA or even what it really does in the body, most of us at least know it’s considered “bad” for our health. As a result you might reach for “BPA-free” plastic products when shopping for water bottles, baby bottles, food storage containers, etc. If that’s the case, you probably make your purchase with a sense of safety knowing you’ve made the “right” choice.  Is this sense of safety justified? Is BPA-free plastic somehow non-toxic? What’s the real story?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is just one of many chemicals utilised in the manufacturing of plastics. In July 2012 the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby products such as drink bottles. This was in response to growing consumer concern that BPA could cause harm in babies. It had been known about for years, but only hit main stream awareness in the last few years. Plastic products touting their “BPA-free” status are very common today. With BPA removed, what took its place? With plastic being made from a concoction of compounds, what else is in there? Is it safe?

We utilised BPA to make clear hard plastics, like reusable drink bottles. Another very common ingredient in plastics are a family of chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates give plastics flexible qualities. Pacifiers and the nipple like mouthpiece on baby bottles typically gets its flexibility from phthalates. Growing scientific evidence links BPA and phthalates with a variety of health issues, including hormonal and developmental problems, and cancer.

“Animal studies have associated phthalate exposure with adverse effects on the liver, kidney, and male and female reproductive system, especially when exposures occur to the developing organism. For example, animals exposed to phthalates in the mother’s womb have shown decreased sperm activity and concentration, early puberty in females, and testicular cancer. Possible reproductive, developmental and other effects of phthalates in humans are the subject of much ongoing research. Phthalates have been detected in humans, but associations between the levels of phthalates found and effects in humans is currently inconclusive.” (http://health.westchestergov.com/bisphenol-a-and-phthalates)

The health impact of chemicals used to replace BPA and phthalates are not well understood. The many other chemicals in plastics, alongside BPA and phthalates, are also poorly understood. Removing BPA and phthalates means all these other chemicals are still there, obviously.

One fact that is understood is that most plastics release chemicals that mimic hormones. This was the primary issue raised about BPA. That it mimicked estrogen. But BPA is not the only culprit in this affair. A study done by Environmental Health Perspectives, published in July 2011, showed nearly all plastics release estrogenic compounds, even with BPA not present. That study is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=10.1289/ehp.1003220

What follows is a quote from NPR covering this story:

The researchers bought more than 450 plastic items from stores including Walmart and Whole Foods. They chose products designed to come in contact with food — things like baby bottles, deli packaging and flexible bags, says George Bittner, one of the study’s authors and a professor of biology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Then CertiChem, a testing company founded by Bittner, chopped up pieces of each product and soaked them in either saltwater or alcohol to see what came out.

The testing showed that more than 70 percent of the products released chemicals that acted like estrogen. And that was before they exposed the stuff to real-world conditions: simulated sunlight, dishwashing and microwaving, Bittner says.

The researches focused on BPA-free water bottles and baby bottles, only to discover that, “all of them released chemicals having estrogenic activity.” In some cases they discovered BPA-free products had higher levels of estrogenic activity than products containing BPA.

The researchers did find some plastic products with no detectable estrogenic activity. So they do exist, and it is possible to make non-estrogenic plastics. Unfortunately the researchers did not release the list of products found to not have estrogenic activity.

This is all old news. As far as I am aware, it’s been known for decades that plastics, along with many other synthetic chemicals we are using and exposing ourselves to, mimic hormones and are associated with a long list of other health issues.  The knowledge is available, but for whatever reason the general public mostly remains ignorant of it. The media simply isn’t given it enough attention, and the public are not paying attention.

For example, exactly twenty years ago I did an extensive project in biology class at high school highlighting the issue of what leaches from cling-film. I presented a list of chemicals in cling-film (known in New Zealand by the brand name “Gladwrap”, and “Saran wrap” in the USA). I presented numerous studies showing these chemicals leach into food they come into contact with. From memory, what those studies found is that foods high in fats were the most susceptible. The most common offenders were cheese and meat because of their high fat content. Ironically, both of these foods are invariably wrapped in cling-film by the supermarket meat or cheese departments. I should point out, I did all that research before the Internet was commonly available. So I was digging up this data in books and microfiche in the public library. Today there is an abundance of readily accessible information on this subject.

The worst case is frozen meat wrapped in cling film (usually with a styrofoam tray under it, which is another source of chemicals in food), that is subsequently thawed in a microwave oven (on defrost mode). This is very typical supermarket meat packaging. There was no particular focus on the styrofoam, just the cling film. The microwave oven would significantly increase the levels of chemicals that leached into the meat. A good reason to avoid commercial meat, and to throw out the microwave over.

Indicative of the times, my biology teacher was noticeably disturbed by my project. She was rather conservative in her views on life, and her world view was challenged by my digging up these facts about cling film. Not everyone is as closed as her. Just a few months ago I commented to the man running the cheese department in a Wholefoods store. I mentioned to him that the film they wrap all their cheeses in is leaching chemicals into the cheese. They sell organic cheeses, and then wrap them in toxic film (I didn’t say that). His response was to the effect that, “Wholefoods now sources a BPA free cling-film, so it’s not an issue” (paraphrased). I pointed out BPA is not the only issue. He didn’t know what else to say. But at least they were starting to think about it. I’d prefer to see the cheeses wrapped in natural wax paper.

What’s the solution to this issue? Basically, avoid plastics.

Yet without a dramatic life-style change, that’s only partially possible. For instance, the “new car smell” is a chemical cocktail of phthalates, BPA, and a host of other chemicals. Some people love the “new car smell”. I don’t. It often makes me nauseous, and it’s the number one issue I have when renting a vehicle. Many rentals are only a few months old. Fortunately I have “preferred” status with Avis, so I am able to choose my car from a line-up of free upgrades. If the car they assign me smells too strong, I check my options until I find one that doesn’t. Of course, we can’t be so fussy when we own a car.

People into using sex toys pay a hidden price too. Phthalates are what make them soft and flexible. What about the PVC water pipes in modern housing? What about the chemical cocktails commonly embedded into new furniture, carpet, beds, curtains, and more? Not just phthalates but teflon may have been used. Any items claiming stain resistance likely have teflon in them. But I digress. Simply put, phthalates are commonly referred to as the “everywhere chemicals”. They are practically unavoidable, and studies suggest the majority of Americans (for example) have measurable levels of phthalates in their urine on a daily basis.

So, at best we can minimise. That starts with minimising or eliminating the use of plastics in the kitchen; avoiding cling-films; avoiding plastic drink bottles; and favoring second-hand cars over new ones. Plastic containers can be replaced with glass. As for snap-seal bags (like Ziplocks), that’s tricky. In the future pliable nanotechnology materials might come to the rescue. Assuming they are (or can be) engineered to not leach their nano particles.

As for household drinking water. Get a decent multi-stage under-bench water filter. That way you’ll remove the PVC (and a host of other stuff that’s in most tap water) at point-of-use.

Simply put, the words “BPA-free” means very little. It’s most certainly not something that should engendered a sense of security or health safety. If it’s BPA-free that means what you have in before you is plastic, and that plastic is still going to leach chemicals.