BPA & Plastic Safety ComplexitiesPosted: March 16, 2014
It is always inconvenient when the way we’ve always done things becomes problematic. Take BPA – I recently heard a NPR program that indicated that careful research has not proven a significant concern. The programming was based on news that the US Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. That program indicated that in testing the substance on amphibians, the amount required to show any estrogenic effect was so high, that it is unlikely that any human being would ever receive such a dose.
BPA is used in a wide assortment of products, including paper receipts, plastic containers, and canned goods. Scientists are concerned that the chemical mimics the effect of female hormones and causes medical problems, such as cancer, learning disabilities, and immune system disorders. BPA exploded into the headlines in 2008, when stories about “toxic baby bottles” and “poison” packaging became ubiquitous. Good Morning America issued a “consumer alert.” The New York Times urged Congress to ban BPA in baby products. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned in the Huffington Post that “millions of infants are exposed to dangerous chemicals hiding in plain view.” Concerned parents purged their pantries of plastic containers, and retailers such as Walmart and Babies R Us started pulling bottles and sippy cups from shelves. Bills banning BPA in infant care items began to crop up in states around the country.
However, since the first alarms about BPA were raised, new forms of packaging have evolved to reassure human beings that their food is safe to eat. Personally, I would rather err on the side of over-reaction, if alternatives exist – than take a chance of some chemical that has raised concerns. And yet, that is not the end of this story and it is difficult to feel reassured.
Mother Jones has published information that BPA-Free Plastics are not necessarily risk free either. The problem as identified by Michael Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, relates to research suggesting some of these new generation, BPA-free plastics, contain synthetic estrogens, too.
An editorial in Plastics News for March 10, 2014 by Don Loepp notes that “many types of common plastics — not just polycarbonate and epoxy, which use bisphenol A as a feedstock — test positive for estrogenic activity (based upon the research of George Bittner) and poses important questions – “Are the levels of EA high enough to be concerned about ? Are plastics safe ? Are plastics companies that market certain materials as BPA-free selling products that are actually safer ?”
There are plenty of concerns to go around. In the FDA study, it is said the lab was entirely contaminated with the BPA chemical; and therefore, not controlled enough to be reliable. George Bittner is said to have a conflict of interest, in that he founded an Austin TX based company called Plastipure Inc, which markets plastics that it claims are “significantly safer materials, free of all estrogenic activity”. Eastman Chemical won a federal lawsuit last year against Plastipure when a jury found that Plastipure had made misleading statements about Eastman’s BPA-free Tritan product.
The controversy has set off a bitter fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has sought to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, has teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical—the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic marketed as being free of estrogenic activity—in a campaign to discredit Bittner and his research. The company has gone so far as to tell corporate customers that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Bittner’s testing methods. (It hasn’t.) Eastman also sued CertiChem and its sister company, PlastiPure, to prevent them from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic, convincing a jury that its product displayed no estrogenic activity. And it launched a PR blitz touting Tritan’s safety, targeting the group most vulnerable to synthetic estrogens: families with young children.
“It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe,” the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in one web video, before an image of a pregnant woman flickered across the screen. True as far as that goes but that doesn’t necessarily reassure consumers. The recycle code can help reduce risks – “The number 7 doesn’t necessarily mean the product contains BPA,” according to Rebecca Roberts, PhD, a BPA researcher and assistant professor of biology at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA. “It means it might.” Seven signifies a group of miscellaneous plastics including polycarbonate plastic (BPA is used to harden this type of plastic). The number 3, which stands for Poly-vinyl Chloride (PVC), may also contain BPA, whereas the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are very unlikely to contain BPA. Our Origins plastics are primarily #2 HDPE, some # 4 LDPE and a small amount of #5 Poly-propylene. But since the numbers 7 and 3 don’t always mean the product contains BPA, how can you know what to toss and what to keep? “Unfortunately, there’s no real way to tell,” says Roberts.
As long as we live and breathe and our hearts beat, Life will continue to present complex safety concerns. Living is dangerous and no more so, than in our modern times with the prevalence of volumes of chemicals with little known side effects and a lot of suspicions. I believe that controversies can be good for materials and the public health. Cork experienced a similar phase, when age-old practices were shown to contribute to a concern known as cork taint. Into the fray, came metal screw caps and synthetic cork forms as replacements. Natural cork producers responded by improving their practices to take the production of cork to food or pharmaceutical grade safety. Even though “cork taint” was addressed, the industry must now make the case (which can be ably made) that natural cork has aspects that make paying more worthwhile.
Dr Paulo Lopes explained his research in conjunction with the University of Bordeaux. It suggests that bottles sealed with cork do transmit oxygen to wine, but there is no ingress of external oxygen: 90% of cork’s structure is air, so cork itself is responsible for transmission to the wine. Screwcaps, on the other hand, are basically impermeable and run a risk of ‘reduction’ (sulphide problems), whilst synthetic closures allow ingress of atmospheric oxygen, failing to maintain their seal over time. Dr Lopes’s hypothesis is that cork is the best ‘balanced’ of the closure materials, and given careful quality control in manufacture, does not allow atmospheric ingress or high variability.
As environmentalists and parents, we are willing to pay more for higher quality foods and products. As business people, we support the usage and recycling of plastics and wine cork stoppers. Knowing what’s best is never easy in a modern world full of conflicting and abundant information. We can each, only do our best.
~ Information Resources
“Research Debates BPA’s Influence in the Womb” by Dale McGeehon posted Feb 13, 2013 – http://www.polymersolutions.com/blog/research-debates-bpas-influence-in-the-womb/
“The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics – And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it” by Mariah Blake published in Mother Jones March/April 2014 Issue – http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/03/tritan-certichem-eastman-bpa-free-plastic-safe
“Plastics, safety and the media” by Don Loepp posted March 10, 2014 in Plastics News – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140314/OPINION01/140319934/plastics-safety-and-the-media
“11 Ways to Lower Your BPA Exposure” by Katie Kerns posted at Everyday Health – http://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-home-pictures/11-ways-to-lower-your-bpa-exposure.aspx#/slide-1
“Wine Cork Tile Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/winecorktile/wct_introduction.html
“Cork fights back” by Tom Cannavan posted July 2008 on Wine-Pages – http://www.wine-pages.com/features/amorim-cork.htm
“Origins Introduction” by Stephen & Deborah Yemm published 2014 at Yemm & Hart website – http://www.yemmhart.com/materials/origins/originsintroduction.html
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer