18 August 2014

BPA-free could mean worse-for-you

Buy a colourful, clear plastic water bottle for sports or for children, and more likely than not, it will say that it is 'BPA free'. Concerns about bisphenol A (BPA) became widespread in 2008, and many brands have used replacements for this chemical for quite a few years now - at least in sports and for children, particularly babies.

While those who worry about BPA might rest easy with BPA-free products available, the problem hasn't quite gone away. One challenge is that BPA is still found elsewhere - it can be used for the thermal paper for receipts, to coat the cans used for canned food, or the inside of water pipes. There is currently no requirement to inform the public that these products contain BPA.

A bigger challenge is that the replacements for BPA, which are often also bisphenols, might have the same negative side-effects, or worse. An August 11 story in Scientific American noted that there is no requirement that replacements for BPA have to be tested. The story notes that bisphenol S (BPS), a replacement for BPA, may be just as bad, if not worse for humans, and outlines the research to date on its effects*.

A 2013 study from Korea has shown that several bisphenols including bisphenol AP, bisphenol M, and bisphenol P "exerted genotoxic** potentials that are greater than that of BPA" on chicken cells, while another outlines what happens to zebra fish exposed to BPS: egg production significantly decreased in the female fish, estrogen levels were higher for both males and females and testosterone levels lower for males, and there were fewer successful hatches if the parents had been exposed to BPS. A 2014 study from India further notes that BPS can affect proteins in the human body at lower concentrations than BPA.

Bisphenols can leak into the body, and are probably already affecting us if they have an effect. A 2012 study covering eight countries found that BPS can be detected in urine in Japan, China, the US, Kuwait, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, and Korea, in order of highest concentrations to lowest, albeit at lower concentrations than for BPA. Bisphenols are even found in dust in China, Japan, Korea and the US, with BPA, BPS and bisphenol F making up about 98% of the total.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that BPA levels found in daily life are generally safe, so it is a personal decision whether to make use of items which may not contain BPA or other bisphenols. There are stainless steel water bottles and food sold in glass jars, for example.

And while products are labelled 'BPA free', it it is not always clear what is being used to replace it. Some companies like Eden Foods*** calls its cans "BPA free" not because they have some other plastic in them, but because it is using an alternative made of vegetable resin enamel. The company asked their can suppliers what was being used, and has insisted on using the more expensive can lining that was used prior to modern can linings with BPA.

*This Mother Jones story dated March 2014 also discusses the issue.
**Genotoxic substances damage DNA, which can lead to cancer.
***Eden Foods has an online store but only delivers to customers in Canada, the US, Armed Forces Stations with US ZIP Codes and Puerto Rico. The company advises everyone else to call them to place an order. Check here for the number.