Michael Green, director of the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), has had a heck of a time getting his 2-year-old daughter to use a stainless steel sippy cup instead of the BPA-free one she loves like a teddy bear.
Green helped lead the charge to have bisphenol A (BPA) removed from plastic drinking bottles because it mimics a weak form of the hormone estrogen when it leaches into the liquid in a bottle or cup.
The chemical, whose safety still generates public concern, has been linked to brain and reproductive impairment in animal studies, among other health problems. By 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in baby bottles and sippy cups after manufacturers stopped using it. The chemical is still in use in other food and liquid containers.
Green believed, then, that his daughter was safe using a BPA-free sippy cup. Now he’s concerned after seeing research that suggested BPA-free plastics may contain synthetic estrogens as well.
He has made up his mind about what his daughter will drink from, and consumers face that decision as well. But the new debate about BPA-free plastic products -- between safety advocates like CEH and plastic product manufacturers – goes on.
Many plastic manufacturers switched from BPA to the chemical bisphenol S (BPS), believing, based on research, it would be more stable in drinking bottles exposed to heat. But one study reports that, “although BPS is less likely to leach from plastic containers with heat and sunlight, it does still escape the polymer in small quantities under normal use.” What’s most important: less in this case is more. BPS concentrations of less than one part per trillion can disrupt normal cellular function in animal studies, potentially leading to health problems that include diabetes, obesity, asthma, birth defects, or cancer, according to lead author Cheryl Watson, PhD, of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
“People automatically think low doses do less than high doses,” Watson told Environmental Health News. “But both natural hormones and unnatural ones like [BPS] can have effects at surprisingly low doses.”
The chemical BPS replaced in products for children is still used in other food and beverage containers. Most of the plastic bottles used to market water in grocery stores, convenience markets, and vending machines still contain BPA, as do the liners of many food and soda cans. A study by Korean researchers found that drinking from beverage cans coated inside with BPA could temporarily increase blood pressure within just a few hours. The study suggests that limiting exposure to BPA may be helpful for people who already have high blood pressure or heart disease.
For it’s part, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, says research by numerous government bodies proves BPA is safe. “Based substantially on this compelling body of research, government bodies around the world have clearly stated that BPA is safe as used in food contact materials. In particular, FDA responded recently to the question ‘Is BPA safe?’ with one unambiguous word: ‘Yes,’” the council said in a prepared release.
Officially, the CEH says that “because there are no rules in the U.S. that require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in products sold for our children and families, there is no way to know if the chemicals used to replace BPA might be just as – or even more – harmful.”
Green had the CEH send 18 sippy cups purchased from a variety of popular retailers to CertiChem, an independent lab in Austin, Texas. Many, including the one his daughter used, also released estrogen.
The case against BPA-free plastics and the continuing legal battle is documented exhaustively in the investigative magazine Mother Jones. The report’s author, Mariah Blake, wrote that the CertiChem results were the same as those of a larger study conducted by CertiChem and funded by the National Institutes of Health.
In an interview with Public Radio International, Blake said, “there are more than 800,000 chemicals that are used in commerce in the United States. And only a very tiny fraction of these have ever been tested for safety.” She added that, under the U.S. regulatory system, chemicals are generally presumed safe until proven otherwise.
In addition to the CEH, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Environmental Health have raised concerns about BPA-free plastic bottles.
People worried about chemicals leaching from plastics into their drinks have options. One alternative, Green suggests, is drinking from stainless steel containers.
Glass will work just as well at home, but it’s not recommended for on-the-go use due to its likelihood to shatter. You can even purchase travel bottles made of thick and durable paper. If you can’t avoid all plastic, try silicone.
Buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than canned and processed foods. Use glass, wood, ceramic, or stainless steel food-storage containers. Never microwave food in plastic containers.
You can also avoid buying water in plastic bottles. Drinking water from plastic bottles may be unsafe, can be wasteful, and may be no safer than tap water. As much as one quarter of bottled water may be from the tap, anyway, according to the Earth Policy Institute.
Then there’s the financial impact of buying bottled water. With the average cost of bottled water at $1.22 per gallon, consumers are spending 300 times the cost of tap water to drink it. If you buy a lot of single bottles of water on the go, you could be paying even more – as much as $7.50 per gallon.
Most Americans would scream bloody murder if they paid that much for gasoline. Why not for water?
March 04, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA