Concerns about toxic bottles and other consumer goods have led to new plastics—but we don't know much about them
Bisphenol A (BPA)—the once-obscure chemical building block of polycarbonate plastics, the epoxy resins that line many food and beverage cans, and of the coatings that make inks appear in most cash register receipts—is now almost a household word. But familiarity with the chemical has grown not because BPA is used in countless everyday products, but because of its potential adverse health effects, in particular its ability to act as an endocrine-disrupting chemical.
As a result, many major manufacturers of baby bottles, toddlers' drinking cups, and reusable water bottles—among other products—have switched to "BPA-free" materials. A number of prominent retailers in the U.S. and abroad are doing the same. So the question arises: What are these BPA-free materials, and who's making sure they're safe?
Because the U.S. system of regulating chemicals relies primarily on information supplied by a material's manufacturer, we know relatively little about these new plastics.
As scientific evidence of BPA's biological activity grows, the search for alternatives becomes more imperative. While the polymers BPA creates are strong, they easily release the substance, which can get into our bodies not only through contact with BPA-laden products themselves but also through food, dust, and air. Potential adverse effects—which can occur at very low levels of exposure—include disrupted genetic signaling and hormone activity that can lead to diabetes; obesity; impaired reproductive, developmental, neurological, immune, and cardiovascular system function; and certain cancers. Of particular concern are the effects of BPA on infants and children. BPA eventually does break down, but the chemical is in so many products that it is virtually ubiquitous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found BPA in more than 90 percent of the Americans it has tested.
The degree to which BPA poses a direct health risk continues to be debated. But China, Canada, Japan, the European Union, more than half a dozen U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and several other local and national governments have already restricted some uses of BPA, particularly in children's products, and this year about 17 states are expected to introduce similar legislation. So even if BPA is less of a risk than many people think, demand for alternatives is increasing. While there are currently no federal restrictions on BPA use, both the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has labeled BPA "a chemical of concern," and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued statements of support for the use of BPA alternatives.
So what are these BPA-free materials and what do we know about them?
Glass, ceramics, and stainless steel are alternatives for some uses of polycarbonates, but plastics have obvious attractions. And avoiding many uses of BPA—can linings, paper—will require some kind of new polymer, or products will have to be redesigned to perform as desired without, for example, a plastic liner or coating. Companies are pursuing both strategies.
Then there are the new plastics on the market for BPA-free bottles, can liners, and other such products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has an effort underway through its Design for Environment program to examine the alternatives to the BPA-based thermal papers used in receipts, currency, and other similarly printed papers. But because the U.S. system of regulating chemicals relies primarily on information supplied by a material's manufacturer, we know relatively little about these new plastics.