"BPA-Free" plastics may pose equal or greater hazard than predecessors

Sarah Vogel

In recent years, BPA has become a three-letter household word. In response to growing concerns about a litany of adverse effects associated with exposure to this estrogen-like chemical – particularly in the very young – families across the country ditched their plastic baby bottles, major chain stores banished BPA-based plastics from their shelves, and more than a dozen states imposed new limits on the once obscure compound.

Though slow to build, the response once it started was remarkable in speed and scope. Chemical makers rushed to deliver new formulations, while retailers and product manufacturers quickly touted their new “BPA-Free” alternatives. Unfortunately, it turns out that some of these alternatives may contain chemicals that are just as hazardous as BPA. Worse still is that some replacement chemicals may not have been studied at all, “trading the devil we know for one we don’t.

Scientists have been increasingly concerned about BPA replacements for some time. This week a new report by investigative reporter Mariah Blake for Mother Jones magazine reviews some of the recent evidence suggesting that many plastics, including those explicitly marketed as “estrogen-free” replacements contain chemicals that are at least as estrogenic as BPA, and describes the industry campaign to obfuscate the growing body of worrisome science. 

It’s not just the companies that are to blame. Blinders are a built-in feature of the federal laws that are supposed to protect us from chemical risks, but which let substances come onto and stay on the market without adequate testing.   

Absent standards requiring rigorous safety assessments—including studies of low-level estrogenic effects on the developing organism—replacements are largely market driven and opportunistic.

And it is easy to see why somebody looking at a “BPA-free” label would assume the product is safe – a perception that may be reinforced if they’re paying a premium price for the privilege. But right now, there’s no way to know for sure whether they’re right. The fact is, we don’t know.

Researchers and regulators disagree on whether BPA is safe. What’s not in dispute is whether BPA is estrogenic. The question is whether the levels at which we are exposed present significant risks of adverse health effects. Determining when and at what level exposure to an estrogenic chemical leads to adverse health effects is part of an ongoing effort by researchers to define and test for an endocrine disruptor.

Both marketers and consumers alike will be tempted by a quick, easy fix that might not be the right fix – or any fix at all. So what’s an average person supposed to do in the face of so much conflicting information? For starters, don’t panic.  But also don’t assume that a substitute plastic is any better, no matter what the label says. When storing food, you’re better off using glass or stainless steel containers if you can. 

All of this goes to show (once again) that consumers can’t simply shop their way to safety. We need stronger laws, stronger regulations, more information, and improved chemical testing.  And we need more people speaking up for stronger, health protective chemical policy in this country.