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Does “BPA-Free” Really Mean Safer?

As food companies and water-bottle makers scramble to rid their products of the ubiquitous, potentially hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol- A and slap on those 7 comforting letters, many in the scientific community say they have their doubts.

“There is tremendous effort in the market to move away from BPA, which is great, but a lot of it happened so fast that we don’t know what they moved to,” Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for the nonprofit, Women’s Voices for the Earth, recently told me. “In some cases they are moving to alternatives that are just as bad, and could be worse.”

That dirty little secret has remained below the consumer radar screen, as health-conscious moms like me sip complacently on our “BPA-free” water bottles. But light was briefly shed on it this summer in a West Texas courtroom, when $9 billion giant Eastman Chemical – the maker of the “BPA-Free” polymer Tritan (found in Nalgene bottles, Weil Baby bottles, and hundreds of other products that touch our lips) – did battle with a bespectacled 71-year-old college professor who insisted that Tritan and other “BPA-Free” products were far from problem-free.

In July, 2011, Bittner published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, which found that out of more than 400 commercially available products tested (some of them “BPA-free”), 71 percent contained endocrine disrupting chemicals. When the products were stressed by heat (like that plastic bottle sitting in your hot car) the number rose to 92 percent.

“In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more estrogenic activity than did BPA-containing products,” his team reported.

For the record: Bittner has been accused of having ulterior motives and using flawed testing methods. (He owns two companies PlastiPure and Certichem which test products for estrogenic activity and help companies develop alternatives that are “EA-free” or free of estrogenic activity.)

On its website, Eastman said this:

Comprehensive, independent, third-party laboratories using well-recognized methods have confirmed that Tritan does not contain estrogenic activity (EA) and androgenic activity (AA). Eastman is confident in these test results despite recent false and misleading statements about Tritan made by PlastiPure, Inc. and its sister company CertiChem, Inc. These companies rely on the results from a screening test (called the MCF-7 test), which is known in the scientific community to be a non-definitive, non-final test for EA.

But Bittner – a Stanford grad who has taught and researched neurobiology at the University of Texas for four decades – stands by his science. He notes that Tritan is never named in the paper, and that only about a dozen samples tested – less than 3 percent – were made from it.

Nonetheless, Eastman Chemical sued him, accusing PlastiPure/CertiChem (which together amount to less than $20 million and 10 employees) of unfair competition, false advertising, and publishing disparaging words.

Eastman swiftly won in court.

But the trial shed light on some interesting issues: It seems that Eastman Chemical paid for the “independent third-party testing” it puts forth to prove it is truly “BPA-Free” prompting some to wonder how objective and accurate the studies are. And more recent studies, including a March paper from researchers in Spain and Germany, looked specifically at Tritan and found that while the amounts are fairly miniscule, it does indeed contain bisphenol-A along with a few other chemicals I’m not so sure I would want my 1-year-old granddaughter sucking on.

Tritan aside, University of California Irvine researcher Bruce Blumberg, who has studied endocrine disrupters for years, recently told me that the term “BPA-Free” should never be seen as assurance that a product is safer.“This is the typical game that industry plays. If you pressure them to get rid of one chemical, they replace it with another one.” (In the frenzy to meet consumer demand for “BPA-free” thermal papers for receipts, many companies switched to BPS, an estrogen-mimicking plasticizer with a similar structure.)

So what’s a health-conscious mother-of-four with a cupboard full of “BPA-Free” plastic containers to do?

I’m tossing them and switching to glass.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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