In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the chemical bisphenol-A – better known as BPA – from baby bottles and sippy cups. The plastic additive has been linked to adverse human health effects, including exposure to synthetic estrogen. Manufacturers of other plastic products ranging from cups to storage containers and even plastic wrap quickly followed suit, plastering “BPA Free” labels on their merchandise as well. However, a new investigation by Mother Jones magazine revealed that chemicals used to replace BPA may be just as dangerous, if not more so.
Scientists have linked BPA exposure to diseases including cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. BPA can hamper brain and organ development in young children, and BPA exposure is estimated to be responsible for some $3 billion a year in health care costs.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently funded a research study of BPA-free plastics, to determine what chemical impact they might have on the human body. The findings were published in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and the report stated that “almost all” commercially available plastics leached synthetic estrogens, with or without BPA. This was the case even when the plastics were not exposed to heat from sources such as a dishwasher, microwave or even being left in the sun – conditions suspected of releasing chemicals in the plastics.
The NIH study was co-authored by George Bittner, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin and founder of CertiChem, a lab in Austin, Texas. Dr. Bittner told Mother Jones the NIH study revealed that BPA-free products “actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.” In 2002, Dr. Bittner established two companies with assistance from an NIH grant. Those companies are CertiChem, which tests plastics for synthetic estrogen, and PlastiPure, which works to develop non-estrogenic alternative materials. Dr. Bittner, who was inspired to create the companies based on early research on endocrine disruption linked to BPAs, told Mother Jones:
It struck me as the most important public health issue of our time. These chemicals have been correlated with so many adverse effects in animal studies, and they’re so pervasive. The potential implications for human health boggle the mind.
It was reported that when BPA is removed it’s often replaced with another chemical that is similarly dangerous. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), this process is known in the industry as a “regrettable substitution.” Currently, there is no regulation for these chemical substitutions. The Toxic Substances Control Act, which is meant to protect the public, was created almost 40 years ago, but it’s largely unenforceable. Under U.S. law, you may be surprised to learn that all chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise. That’s rather hard to justify considering what is involved. Sarah Vogel, EDF’s Health Director, says:
We have to press the government to require that this chemical and all chemicals we use around our homes are shown to be safe. Federal action is the only way we can solve this large-scale problem.
Michael Green, Director for the Center for Environmental Health, calls this chemical substitution procedure a “toxic shell game,” where a known hazardous chemical is replaced with a largely untested chemical, which may turn out to be even worse than what it replaces. This in my opinion is a prime example of weak regulation of an industry.
Meanwhile, despite the limited ban, BPA is still used in a wide variety of products such as the lining of tin cans, hospital blood bags, cash register receipts and dental sealants. The FDA announced that its most recent study supports the safety of BPA. But Mother Jones notes there were problems with the control group of animals involved in the FDA study, which it says calls into question the results.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a program to screen 80,000 chemicals for endocrine disruption, but to date the agency has not completed its evaluation of any of them. In 2010, the EPA asked for White House approval to add endocrine-disrupting chemicals including BPA to its “chemicals of concern” list as posing a risk to human health. This would have required the manufacturers of those chemicals to share the results of safety studies with federal regulators. Can you imagine that this wouldn’t be routinely done? But for some unknown and unexplained reason, the proposal was inexplicably and quietly withdrawn in September 2013. That’s very hard to understand and impossible to justify. Hopefully, the need to act on the BPA safety issues will find its way back on the Obama Administration’s radar screen. That would give the mission a badly needed boost.
Sources: EDF.org, Mother Jones, and DemocracyNow.org
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