The Straight Story on BPA

Girl in pile of plastic bottles

Share this idea!

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.

Read more:

Scientists Use Fungi to Break Down BPA
Recycling Mystery: Plastic #7
Sigg Announces Its Older Bottles Contain BPA
Minnesota Bans BPA in Children’s Products

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)

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The American Chemistry Council is one of these partners.

Recent Posts
Latest posts by Jennifer Giacoppo (see all)

Comments

  1. Dear Earth911:

    With all due respect, I think it’s worth noting that your interview subject has a lot at stake in asserting the safety of BPA. It is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry and over a million tons of the chemical are produced each year. Dr. Hentges isn’t telling lies — but he may not either be telling the whole truth.

    It’s true that the chemical doesn’t persist or accumulate in the environment — but it is also notable that it is so pervasive that, even as it breaks down, more of the chemical is introduced. It is measurable in the bodies of 90% of Americans, according to a study by the CDC.

    If you are looking for the straight story on the science, I suggest you look not only at the Chemistry Council’s expertise, but also at the expertise of 38 independent scientists and BPA research experts. A Chapel Hill panel concludes that BPA exposure at current levels presents a clear risk to human health. Check out a summary of their consensus statement:
    http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/newscience/2007/2007-0803chapelhillconsensus.html

  2. Straight story? This Earth 911 piece on BPA is a regurgitation of what the plastic manufacturere want us to believe.

    Read more, and judge for yourselves.

    PBS:

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/expose/2009/02/303-index.html

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

    http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/34405049.html

    NY Times:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/opinion/08kristof.html

    Here’s a video interview with the world’s leading scientist stidying BPA:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW1B_ZT4Uwc

    Now, that’s the straight story right there.

  3. Author

    Hi Jen and Manuel,
    Thanks for your comments! I really appreciate your feedback, and definitely agree that there’s a lot of concern about BPA currently. That’s one of the reasons why we didn’t give an opinion on safety, but rather cited the FTC’s most recent release that there is some concern about BPA, and have even covered controversial stories about BPA such as Minnesota’s ban on it and the recent SIGG controversy (see the Read More section at the bottom of the story). We were focused more here on talking about where it is, why it’s used, if it’s recyclable, and what the current positions are of both sides.
    Thanks,
    Jenn

  4. Thank you Jennifer,

    I believe that this site, Earth911, is funded by the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing the interests of plastic and and other industries, including Bisphenol A manufacturers.

    If this is true, I believe that this should be mentioned in this article.

    As a fellow journalist, I would like to hear your thoughts.

    Thank you

  5. Author

    Hi Manuel,
    Earth911 has many partners that work with us in a number of ways, including industry groups like the American Chemistry Council and Call2Recycle, companies like Behr and RecycleBank, and the like. You can see a brief list of them in our Business Solutions section (a full list is on the way, we’re updating our site 🙂 ), and we are very transparent about the groups with whom we work. We don’t establish these relationships to take sides, but rather to have resources to cover the issues our readers are interested in. You can check out some of our other stories that involve plastic (like What Bio Really Means) to see that we do our best to provide both sides of the issue.
    Thanks again for your feedback,
    Jenn

  6. Does anyone know if PEX, a plastic used in residential plumbing, contains PBA? I am considering using some in my new home but cannot find any information about what might be transferred into the water. Manufacturers claim it is inert, but it is still a plastic and I don’t trust claims made by these sources. Help?

    Thanks
    Pyramid Michael

  7. Hi Jennifer

    So, if understand well,

    a) Yes, Earth911 does indeed receive funding from the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing the interests of Bisphenol A manufacturers.

    b) At the time of publication (and still at the date and time of this message) this important fact is not mentioned anywhere on the article, or on your entire site.

    In my opinion, this is a breach of the most elemental principles of reporting, journalism, blogging, informing or however you want to describe the news and commentaries that Earth 911 provides.

    If Earth911 wants to be respected as an independent and transparent source for environmental news, you should disclose your affiliations. Your readers deserve to know. They are the ones that ultimately will judge for themselves the quality of the information Earth911 provides.

    Thank you

    Manuel Maqueda

  8. Author

    Hi Manuel,

    Truly, thank you for your comments – they are well-received and have been relayed to our Editorial Team. I am happy to address each of your concerns in kind to be sure that there is not any confusion on either point:
    a) Yes, we do have a paid partnership with the ACC. However, as I have articulated, it is not to promote any interests, but rather raise a discussion about a prominent and recyclable product in the general consumer landscape. Regardless of where you work or live, or what your position may be, these are materials we use every day.
    b) Earth911 does not currently have a policy addressing partnerships in our content. However, we are uniquely aware of the need for transparency – we do after all, work in the sustainability sector, one of the most demanding industries in this sense. We are working on what this looks like for us, and will hopefully have a standard in the near future – this is already a policy that we have discussed in the past and want to handle correctly.

    As I mentioned, we are updating our site and our current list of partners is not available – this is not to ‘hoodwink’ our readers, as they are our most respected and valuable asset. It’s a simple question of logistics as we update our site. Additionally, we have made it very public that we work with the ACC in the past, and in fact, recently included them in a national press release which you can read in our Business Solutions section (What Was the Most Recycled Material of 2009?), or click here.

    We have never sought to treat our readers, or their comments, with anything less than respect. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at jberry@earth911.com or 480.889.2650. Like any organization, we aren’t perfect, but we are certainly working to be the best we can.

    Thank you,
    Jenn

  9. Hi Jenn;
    I think we are on the wrong side of this discussion. It seems to me that the chemical industry is producing and introducing products into the marketplace before it is determined if they are safe. We should not be discussing, after the fact, if BPA is safe after it has been and is being consumed by millions of individuals. Why do we have to prove it is harmful; exactly the position of the chemical industry; they should have to prove it is safe before use. It seems the tail is wagging the dog.

  10. Dear Jennifer,

    I’d like to make 4 brief points about your story.

    1. Thanks to Manuel for raising the issue of conflict of interest for you. I believe reporters should disclose conlict of interest WITHIN the relevant story they write. I should not be expected to search your site or come back and visit later once construction is finished to find out about conflicts of interest. Failure to disclose conflict of interest leaves a bad mark on your reputation.

    2. You say in your comments to readers that your BPA story is “talking about where it is, why it’s used, if it’s recyclable, and what the current positions are of both sides.” Yet in the 2nd sentence of your original piece you say you’re going to “get behind the science of BPA”. Yet you never do. There are a lot of sources for the science on this estrogenic chemical. This is one among many I can recommend: http://www.minddisrupted.org/documents/MD%20Bisphenol%20A%20Fact.pdf

    3. On the issue of where BPA is used, you quote ACC rep Steve Hentges as saying “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”.

    If you researched your topic at all you know that BPA is the epoxy resin used in most food and beverage can liners. Its ubiquity in most food can packaging is part of the reason why the American public is so exposed. Your failure to capture this prominent point about BPA use leaves the unfortunate impression that you may be a mouthpiece for your corporate sponsors.

    Can we expect a correction?

    4. I agree with those who support flipping the burden of proof on chemical safety. Manufacturers ought to be required to provide pre-market evidence of safety for all chemicals. Evidence of safety should extend beyond adults to vulnerable subpopulations, including fetuses in the womb. As is the case with BPA, chemicals can and do cross the placenta and reach fetuses from the moment of conception and throughout critical windows — exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable windows — of in utero development. I support this and other reforms to the US Toxic Substances Control Act that are advocated by the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, to which I belong. http://www.saferchemicals.org

    Sincerely,

    Judy Robinson

  11. This article certainly does seem more a bow to the chemical industry than an effort to clarify the uses and potential risks to public health of BPA.

    Interestingly, I’d just read a separate article in this same edition of Earth911 in which the author purports to be “debunking myths” about plastic packaging and its recyclability. Again, in this article, the author does little more than present the latest spin from Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council. The group, as well as the article, is clearly focused on promoting use of plastic packaging, instead of addressing the chemical and plastic industry’s responsibility for packaging waste and the problems it creates, both to the environment and to municipal recycling programs.

Leave a Comment