Are BPA Alternatives Really Safe?
You’ve likely heard about BPA, as it’s become somewhat notorious in recent decades. As the research into BPA’s potential toxicity made its way into the public sphere, some countries have implemented BPA bans in certain types of products (such as baby bottles), and many companies have removed BPA from their products voluntarily.
As a result, shoppers now see a lot more “BPA-Free” labels on their water bottles, canned goods, and food storage containers.
But have you ever wondered what manufacturers actually use as a BPA replacement? What does “BPA-Free” even mean, and is it really any safer?
What is BPA, Anyway?BPA is a synthetic chemical that stands for bisphenol A. BPA is one kind of bisphenol, but it belongs to a larger class of chemicals that also includes things like bisphenol S (BPS), bisphenol F (BPF), and others.
A lot of research has been done on BPA and its potential to negatively affect long term health. It’s a known endocrine disruptor (which means it can affect the body’s natural hormone systems) and has been linked to numerous serious health issues from heart disease and cancer, to diabetes and fertility problems, to developmental problems and Crohn's disease, as noted in the studies linked to below.**
BPA is practically ubiquitous in our environment; detectable levels have been found in over 90% of Americans (including children). And even though BPA has a relatively short half-life and can be excreted by the body pretty quickly, it’s what some scientists have called a “hit-and-run” chemical, meaning it can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time.
Where Is BPA Found?
BPA is commonly used in polycarbonate plastics, and it’s used to make the plastics harder and more durable. One way you can find out whether or not a product might have BPA in it is by looking at the plastic resin code on the bottom of the product. If you see the number 7, that means the product may be made out of polycarbonate (however, it’s really difficult to tell for sure since the #7 code includes other types of plastic as well).
You may also be aware that BPA is commonly used as a lining for canned goods like soups, vegetables, and sodas. In this context, BPA helps to keep the aluminum from rusting. Obviously rust prevention is a good thing; however, there are safer alternatives that can be used for this purpose instead (such as oleoresin, which is a plant-based alternative).
BPA is also used in the thermal printing process, which is why it’s often found in receipts, tickets, tags, and labels. In recent years, some retailers such as Target and Costco have actually switched to bisphenol-free receipts!
“BPA-Free” Alternatives: Are They Really Safer?
As consumers have demanded BPA be removed from their products, companies have replaced it with similar chemicals such as Bisphenol-S and Bisphenol-F.
Even though these specific chemicals haven’t been as widely studied as BPA, the research so far spells bad news. Several studies indicate that BPS may not only be just as bad as BPA -- but it may even be worse. The chemical structure of chemicals like BPS and BPF are almost identical to that of BPA and therefore their effects on the human body are very similar as well.
This is an instance of “regrettable substitution,” where something toxic is replaced with something else that’s just as bad. It’s also an example of greenwashing by the brands doing it. Companies are able to replace BPA with BPS, slap a “BPA-Free” label on their product, and then use it as a marketing ploy to encourage consumers to buy something they think is safer.
There are plastics being developed that are purportedly free of bisphenols, such as Tritan. Research on Tritan, however, is controversial and more studies are needed to determine if it’s non-toxic as claimed. In instances where you can’t avoid plastic usage, Tritan might be an option to consider.
5 Tips for Reducing Bisphenol Exposure
Needless to say, this can be frustrating information! Most consumers choose “BPA-Free” products believing they’re doing something better for themselves and their families, so finding out that these BPA alternatives may not be safer at all can be disheartening.
But there are some practical steps you can take to reduce the amount of BPA and other bisphenols that gets ingested through food and drink or absorbed through your skin:
- Go plastic free when you can. Switching from plastic to stainless steel food storage containers is an easy step you can take!
- When you do use plastic products, keep them away from the heat. Don’t put them in the microwave or leave them in a hot car. Heat increases the rate of BPA leaching.
- Reduce consumption of canned food and drinks. Try to cook fresh or frozen food instead.
- Don’t handle receipts and use hand sanitizer at the same time. Hand sanitizer has been shown to significantly increase the amount of BPA absorbed through the skin.
- Focus on what you can control! In today’s world, you won’t be able to avoid bisphenols or other endocrine disrupting chemicals entirely. So do what you can, taking it one step at a time, and try not to worry too much about the rest.
The original version of this article first appeared on The Filtery.
**The negative health effects of bisphenols are well documented. To read about the research, we’ve linked to studies here about heart disease, cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, developmental problems and Crohn's disease.