Why 'BPA-Free' Plastics Aren't Safe

Plastics are all bad, despite the fact that former tobacco-industry lobbyists are trying to convince you otherwise.

March 10, 2014
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Bisphenol A (BPA) causes heart problems. BPA may spur the growth of prostate-cancer cells. BPA leads to liver tumors. BPA costs the U.S. healthcare system nearly $3 billion due to all the trouble it causes.

Seemingly every day, scientists—independent, nonindustry scientists, mind you—find more evidence that this ubiquitous compound is harmful to humans. That might have you running to plastics advertised as "BPA free," but there's growing evidence that those plastics could be just as bad for you as BPA-containing plastics.


Recently, the Oakland, CA-based Center for Environmental Health tested 35 "BPA-free" sippy cups for children, and found that nine exhibited estrogenic activity. Of those, seven contained chemicals that were even more estrogenic than BPA. 

More: What is a Hormone Disruptor, Anyway?

Yet, a well organized industry campaign to cover up the problems with BPA, as well as discourage research on BPA-free replacements, could be stifling the development of truly safer plastics. And no one knows that better than Mike Usey, CEO of PlastiPure, a company that tests plastic products for any chemicals that might interfere with estrogen. Usey worked with the Center for Environmental Health on its most recent tests. 

"What we're trying to do is focus on solutions, finding products we can recommend to consumers," he says. "That's the path to ensure safer products." But that path has been nearly destroyed by lawsuits brought on by plastics companies angered that his tests are pointing out the flaws in their products. 

In 2011, Usey and George Bittner, CEO of PlastiPure's sister company CertiChem, published a paper in the respected journal Environmental Health Perspectives, showing that BPA-free plastics could be just as, if not more so, estrogenic than plastics containing BPA; CertiChem and PlastiPure work in tandem to test plastics for hormonal activity and develop safer alternatives without hormonal effects.  One plastic tested, Tritan, had become the go-to plastic for Camelbak, Nalgene and many BPA-free baby bottle manufacturers who wanted to rid their products of BPA. After publication, it's manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, sued Bittner and Usey for publishing false information. They won. Their expert witness? A pro-chemical industry scientist who used to work for the tobacco industry sowing doubt about the dangers of second-hand smoke.


"The lawsuit pretty much crippled us," he says. "But on the positive side, it's definitely given more visibility to some of the problems with the big chemical companies and some of their practices."

He's referring to decades-long efforts by major plastics manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying group for the chemical and plastics industries, to obfuscate the science surrounding BPA and other problematic plastic chemicals that was recently detailed by an investigation, published in the magazine Mother Jones. Using former PR experts from Big Tobacco, the industry has used weak scientific arguments and marketing muscle to sow public confusion and influence regulators against banning certain chemicals. 

More: 5 Weird Things BPA Is Doing to Your Body

"When I came into this industry five years ago, you suspect there's some issues" with the way business is done, Usey says, "but you don't understand how far it goes and how it's just choking the science." His company continues to work with consumer groups and some plastics companies to develop safer alternatives, but with such push-back from the industry, he says it's difficult to enact widespread change. 

Meanwhile, questionable chemicals are being funneled into the U.S. marketplace without first being tested, because U.S. law doesn't require that chemical companies test any chemical for estrogenic activity before it's used in consumer goods—and they're all being marketed to you under the misleading halo of "BPA-free!" labels.

Here's a list of all the plastics on the market, which you can ID by the number in the recycling triangle you find on most plastic products, that could be advertised as BPA free, and why that shouldn't translate to "safe" for you or your family:


#7: Miscellaneous plastics, BPS, and PLA
Where they're found: This catchall category includes many BPA-free plastic alternatives. PLA (made from polylactic acid derived from corn) is used in disposable food packaging and some reusable travel mugs. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) are commonly used in food-processor bowls, blender pitchers, and refrigerator bins. Also included are plastics that contain bisphenol S, the primary chemical alternative to BPA. This category also includes any of the six types of numbered plastics blended together.

Why they're not safe: Usey's and Bittner's 2011 study that sparked the controversy over BPA-free plastics found estrogenic activity in 91 percent of PLA plastics, and while it isn't clear how much styrene migrates out of ABS and SAN plastics, styrene is a known endocrine disruptor. BPS has a chemical structure nearly identical to BPA and research is finding it is just as likely to interfere with hormones.

#6: Polystyrene
Where it's found:
foam hot-coffee cups and foam takeout containers, as well as clear plastic disposable takeout containers.

Why it's not safe: Numerous studies have shown that styrene (which is also a known carcinogen) migrates out of foam containers when they're heated or used to store hot foods. 

#5: Polypropylene
Where it's found:
reusable food storage containers, water bottles, and mugs; rigid takeout containers; cutting boards, mixing bowls, and other kitchen accessories; baby bottles and sippy cups.

Why it's not safe: Polypropylene on its own doesn't have many estrogenic properties. It's the preservatives, dyes, and chemicals added to prevent it from breaking down that do, says Usey. For instance, preservatives called BHA and BHT are often added to polypropylene plastics, and both have been shown to either mimic estrogen or interfere with the endocrine system.

#4: Low-density polyethylene
Where it's found:
plastic bags and cling wraps.

Why it's not safe: As with polypropylene, these plastics aren't inherently harmful but they can be once a toxic soup of additives gets integrated.

#3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Where it's found:
Plastic cling wraps mainly; according to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, PVC is the one of the best potential replacements for BPA in metal can linings from a packaging (not health) standpoint, although it isn't known how many canned-food manufacturers have switched to vinyl coatings as a replacement for BPA.

Why it's not safe: PVC contains hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, and it's been linked to breast and liver cancers; the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a known human carcinogen. 

#2: High-density polyethylene
Where it's found:
milk jugs, sippy cups, and some reusable food and drink containers.

Why it's not safe: As with polypropylene, these plastics aren't inherently harmful but they can be once a toxic soup of additives gets integrated.

#1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
Where it's found:
disposable water, soda, and juice bottles, as well as a number of other disposable food containers.

Why it's not safe: PET bottles are known to leach antimony, a known endocrine disruptor, and a recent study in the online journal PLoS One found that this plastic leaches nearly 25,000 different chemicals, one of which was so potent it exhibited anti-androgenic activity similar to that of a hormone-based prostate-cancer drug.