How to Avoid a Controversial Plastics Chemical
Scientists aren't in full agreement about whether the chemical known as bisphenol A, which is used in the production of certain plastics and can leach into food and drink, poses health hazards. Today, an expert panel organized by the National Institutes of Health concluded that the hormone-mimicking chemical poses minimal health risks overall. But a statement made last week by 38 independent scientists warned of a wide range of adverse health effects.
For people who want to play it safe and minimize their exposure to the controversial chemical, experts have some tips: Avoid storing food or beverages in polycarbonate plastic, which is often used to make baby bottles and "sippy" cups, 5-gallon water cooler jugs, and hard, transparent water bottles, among other products. And avoid canned goods, since the linings of metal cans often contain bisphenol A. For people who continue to use polycarbonate food and drink containers, not heating them should also reduce exposure, says Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri, who is a vocal critic of bisphenol A. The acidity of a container's contents and the age and condition of the polycarbonate can also affect how much of the chemical leaches into food or drink, he adds.
Alternatives to polycarbonate include polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, as well as glass. Both alternative plastics are usually identifiable by recycling code, a number that should appear inside a triangular symbol on each plastic container. The number 2 marks polyethylene and the number 5, polypropylene, vom Saal says. Polycarbonate doesn't have a unique recycling code, but it tends to be assigned the code 7, a category for miscellaneous plastics. Various online resourcesfor examples, see here and herelist products said to be bisphenol A free.
Metal cans, according to studies, are a significant source of human exposure to bisphenol A. And finding alternatives isn't simple. The most reliable way to avoid bisphenol A from cans is to avoid using them at all, according to vom Saal. "The breakdown of the plastic lining of cans, or any [bisphenol A]-based product, is greatly accelerated by acidic substances or alcohol," he says. For many canned products, there are fresh or frozen alternatives, as well as products that come packaged in glass.
Trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council and the Can Manufacturers Institute stand behind the safety of polycarbonate. Nevertheless, some manufacturers are seeking alternatives, and a few are actively capitalizing on consumers' concern over bisphenol A. Born Free touts its plastic baby products, including sippy cups, as being free of the chemical. And Valspar, one of the largest makers of plastic coatings, has been developing bisphenol A-free coatings for cans.
Eden Foods, a Clinton, Mich.-based natural-foods company, sells beans and tomato products in bisphenol A-free cans. The company switched in 1999 when its officers first learned of concerns about bisphenol A, according to spokeswoman Tonya Martin. The manufacturing partner that provides its cans, she says, seemed "taken aback" when Eden first requested a bisphenol A-free product; now it provides Eden with custom-made cans lined with an alternative material. The catch: That material costs 14 percent more and can't be used with the tomato products, which are acidic enough to corrode the lining and limit shelf life. As a result, Eden's canned tomatoes still contain trace amounts of bisphenol A, Martin says.
Whether such traces pose a risk to people remains unclear. The NIH-organized expert panel that concluded its meeting today in Washington registered some concern about bisphenol A's possible neurological and behavioral effects, particularly in children and developing fetuses. Its chair, Roger Chapin of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., acknowledged that concerned people may want to apply a "precautionary principle" and take steps to avoid the chemical. But he and the panel's other members, who reviewed hundreds of relevant studies, said the chemical's health risks appear to be "minimal" overall. And many regulatory agencies and numerous industry-sponsored studies say there's no significant cause for worry.
Other experts remain unwilling to let the chemical off the hook. There's enough evidence from animal studies to warrant concern, especially for women who are pregnant or attempting to conceive, they say. "The definitive study may not be possible," says Hugh Taylor, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Yale University School of Medicine. "Why not protect ourselves and the next generation from this threat?"