Bisphenol A, more commonly called BPA, is the toxic chemical that largely comprised polycarbonate plastics. BPA does eventually break down, but because products containing it were–and still are–so ubiquitous, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention managed to find the chemical in more than 90 percent of Americans. But BPA is fast going out of fashion now that we have discovered even low level exposures could cause disrupted genetic signaling and hormone activity that can lead to diabetes; obesity; impaired reproductive, developmental, neurological, immune, and cardiovascular system function; and certain cancers.
As more evidence of BPA’s toxic effects mounts, alternatives become in ever-increasing demand. Consumers now see many products labeled “BPA-free” and may think that they are getting something safe, but is anyone monitoring and testing these alternatives?
The short answer is no. While the National Institutes of Health is supporting $30 million of research into the health effects of BPA, there is no comparable research for the BPA-free alternatives. The EPA’s Design for Environment is examining manufacturer-provided literature of alternative materials but is not currently conducting or commissioning any safety testing of its own either.
Regulating the chemicals by relying primarily on information supplied by a material’s manufacturer, leaves us with little safety information. For example, one BPA-free alternative, Tritan copolyester, is made by the Eastman Chemical Company, which supplies Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for 23 different compounds sold under the Tritan copolyester name. The MSDS sheets, however, list no toxicity data and notes that no studies have been done on the compounds’ effects on the environment. According to Eastman, sales of its product quadrupled between 2009 and 2010.
What this means is that, while we are using BPA-free plastics at an increasingly rapid rate, we know remarkably little about them. These materials could well be BPA all over again or worse.
Glass, ceramics, and stainless steel are alternatives for some products that were formerly made with BPA-containing plastics, but plastic has advantages or is necessary for some products. For those products, it is clear that we need a better system for ensuring safety.