Substitutes for Bisphenol A Could Be More Harmful
By ERICA GIES
SAN FRANCISCO — Four years ago, when Sarah Janssen was pregnant, she was unsure which plastic baby bottles would be safe for her child. “I have a Ph.D. and an M.P.H. and didn’t know what to buy,” she said, referring to a master’s degree in public health.
In her work as a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, she recently discovered that the bottles she had chosen contained Bisphenol S, which is chemically similar to Bisphenol A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen used to harden plastic. While the evidence remains inconclusive, BPA may be linked to a range of health disorders. “That’s incredibly frustrating,” she said.
A growing body of science suggests that even at low doses, BPA binds to estrogen receptors in the human body and may be linked to infertility, birth defects, autism, early puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hormone-related cancers. Other studies show that phthalates, another common ingredient in plastics, may have similar effects.
Health activists have focused their efforts to reduce use of BPA mainly on products that hold food or drink, like water bottles, baby bottles and epoxy-lined food and beverage cans. Restrictions on BPA use have been imposed in the European Union, Canada and some U.S. states. But a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that alternative chemicals might not be much safer. Almost all commercial plastic products sampled in the study, including products advertised as BPA-free, leached chemicals that had estrogenic activity. Some of the BPA-free products showed more estrogenic activity than products with BPA.
“Consumers need to understand that products advertised as BPA-free or phthalate-free is a marketing solution rather than a health solution,” said George Bittner, a chemist and neurobiologist who helped write the study.
Even biodegradable, plant-based bioplastic products are mostly made with processes using the same chemicals.
A spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, Kathryn St. John, said products used for food were safe. “All types of plastics intended for use in food-contact products, including polycarbonate plastics made with BPA, are scrutinized by federal regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before they can be used in any consumer products,” she said.
Dr. Janssen said, however, that thousands of chemicals approved by the F.D.A. are classified as “generally regarded as safe,” meaning the manufacturer told the F.D.A. they were safe or they benefited from a presumption of safety when the agency passed its Food Additives Amendment of 1958. BPA and certain phthalates were in those categories, she said.
For Richard A. Denison, a biochemist and molecular biophysicist who is a senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, this is just one example of a broader problem — the weakness of policies governing chemicals.
The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 accepted the vast majority of chemicals still on the market without requiring any safety assessment, he noted. It also allows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require companies to test their own chemicals and report results case by case.
“Of the many tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today, only a few hundred have been required to be tested for their effect on health and environment,” Mr. Denison said.
It is difficult, moreover, to find out which chemicals are in which products. Companies file thousands of claims annually to protect chemical recipes as trade secrets. Most such claims have never been reviewed by the E.P.A.
Democrats introduced bills in both the House and Senate last year to change the toxic substances act but they were not adopted. Last week, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced an updated bill, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.
The E.P.A., meanwhile has said that it will in future review claims as they come in, effectively reversing a previous presumption of entitlement to confidentiality. It has also said it will review as many past claims as possible — a major undertaking, since there is a backlog of about 22,000 untested claims, said Barbara Cunningham, deputy director of the E.P.A.’s Office of Pollution Prevention & Toxics.
The American Chemistry Council agrees that the toxic substances act should be modernized and has a 10-point proposal for reform on its Web site. “The system needs to be updated to keep up with advancing science and technology and to make sure that chemical management policy protects American innovation,” Ms. St. John said.
As the United States has delayed, other countries have passed laws that would put the burden of proving safety upon companies. The European Union is beginning to implement its 2006 law Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), which requires companies to register the chemicals it uses.
Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia and other countries have also made significant changes in chemical policies, said Mr. Denison, who specializes in chemical regulation. However, some policies apply only to chemicals but not to imported products containing those chemicals.
“That’s a pretty big loophole in the laws when we have increasing globalization of production,” Mr. Denison said.