You’ve probably heard a great deal over the past few months about bisphenol A (BPA), a plastics additive used in countless consumer products.
As questions about BPA, including its recyclability in the plastics to which its added and its safety for human consumption, continue to arise, we decided to get behind the science of BPA with Steven G. Hentges, executive director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group for the American Chemistry Council (ACC).
What exactly is BPA?
BPA is an industrial chemical used primarily to make polycarbonate plastic (typically classified as plastic #7 or “Other” plastic) and epoxy resins.
Polycarbonate plastic has two key attributes that make it appealing: It’s clear and virtually shatterproof.
“Mainly because of those key attributes, polycarbonate is used in products like eyeglass lenses, sports safety equipment such as bicycle and football helmets, goggles and the like,” said Hentges.
“CDs and DVDs are all made out of polycarbonate, and there’s a lot of materials in your car as well. If you have a vacuum cleaner where you have a hard, shatter resistant casing, that might be polycarbonate casing also.”
In addition to these uses, BPA is used in dental fillings, household electronics and as a lining for many food cans.
“One particular use that gets [a great deal of] attention is the use of epoxy resins in metal cans. It’s not a good thing to have foods and beverages in direct contact with a metal can – otherwise it would corrode the metal and contaminate the food,” said Hentges.
Can it be recycled?
According to Hentges, the availability of recycling resources often correlates with the demand to recycle certain materials. For example, because they are disposable and have a relatively short lifespan, plastic bottle recycling resources are abundant. However, as BPA-containing plastics are often used for more durable and longer-lasting goods, the resources for polycarbonate are more limited.
“All of the uses [of polycarbonate] are as products that might be characterized as durable products. It isn’t really used in food packaging, the type where you use it once and dispose of it,” said Hentges. “It’s really used in products that are used repeatedly over and over again. And when you think of recycling, what gets recycled is usually the non-durable products.”
So, while products that utilize BPA are recyclable, it can be a more expensive process with less of a market for the resulting resin.
However, while polycarbonate alone may not have as many recycling resources, it is often recycled as a component of a different recyclable.
“Now there are probably other cases where it gets recycled or reused,” said Hentges. “It is used quite commonly in casings in electronic products. Again, those are durable products – they’re not thrown out every day. What should happen is that electronic equipment goes into a recycling stream where the plastic is recycled.”
Is it safe for the environment?
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), laboratory studies that use internationally accepted guidelines have shown that BPA is “readily and inherently biodegradable in water, meaning that it breaks down rapidly and does not persist in the environment.”
The FTC also notes that when BPA has been detected in streams and rivers, typical concentrations are approximately equal to one drop of BPA in 40,000 gallons water.
Hentges echoes this sentiment, noting that it is “fairly well known that BPA doesn’t persist or accumulate in the environment.” In fact, according to Hentges, there are bacteria in the environment that use BPA as a food source. Scientists are also experimenting with fungi that feed off of BPA to break down polycarbonate plastic more rapidly.
Is it safe for people?
It is the ultimate quandary about this common additive. Type the question Is BPA safe? into Google, and you’ll come up with what seems to be an accurate reflection of the opinions out there: The reviews are mixed.
According to the FDA, “Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA.”
“However, on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children. In cooperation with the National Toxicology Program, FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research is carrying out in-depth studies to answer key questions and clarify uncertainties about the risks of BPA.”
On this particular point, Hentges says “Government agencies around the world have reviewed the science of BPA (there were 10 or so agencies in the last few years alone) and confirmed the safety of it. The FDA didn’t find any health risks, which is consistent with these agencies.
“They stated that there is ‘some concern,’ and what they meant by that is that these are areas where additional resources are needed, where there are data gaps, where there’s more research needed.”
However, many consumer groups are concerned about the health risks of BPA. In fact, a new Minnesota law that began in January banned the presence of the chemical in food and beverage containers targeted for children under 3-years-old, such as plastic baby bottles. Four other states are considering similar legislation.
But the jury is still out on BPA’s true affects. According to the FDA, “Overall, the current literature cannot yet be fully interpreted for biological or experimental consistency or for relevance to human health.”
If you want to read more about current research being conducted on BPA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) provides explanations on studies and results.
Our readers suggest:
Environmental Health News – Chapel Hill Bisphenol A Expert Panel Consensus Statement: Integration of mechanisms, effects in animals and potential impact to human health at current exposure levels.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration – Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications: January 2010
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families – A nationwide effort to pass smart federal policies that protect us from toxic chemicals
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – Since You Asked – Bisphenol A (BPA)
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