Re-examining the Evidence on BPA and Plastics
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Re-examining the Evidence on BPA and Plastics

by Chris Kresser

Published on

BPA plastic safe
istock.com/ZoneCreative

Consumer awareness of the harmful health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) and other plastics has grown exponentially over the past decade. In previous articles, I wrote about the dangers of BPA and BPA-free plastic alternatives, which still contain chemicals with estrogenic activity. However, in recent years there has been considerable industry pushback against research demonstrating the adverse health effects of plastics.

Is it time for us to reconsider whether plastics are truly harmful, or do we need to step up our vigilance about plastic exposure? Read on to learn about the most recent evidence on BPA and other plastics, and why you should continue to be diligent about avoiding exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals.

The great industry cover-up of harmful plastics

The adverse health effects of plastic chemicals have been known by scientists for decades. Bisphenol A (BPA) is perhaps the most infamous plastic chemical; it appears in hard polycarbonate plastic water bottles, dental sealants, the lining of tin cans, and on cash register receipts, just to name a few sources. BPA has been linked to a slew of health problems, including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (1), cardiovascular disease (2), asthma (3), cancer (4), liver damage (5), and ADHD (6).

The $375 billion plastics industry is not happy about studies demonstrating the endocrine-disrupting effects of their products. In recent years, the American Chemistry Council has teamed up with plastics manufacturers to launch Big Tobacco-style campaigns, complete with many of the same scientists and consultants who worked for Big Tobacco, aiming to discredit disturbing scientific research and cast doubt on the dangers of plastics in consumer goods (7). These industries use dirty tactics to produce research that favors their products, crush scientific opposition, and sway public opinion regarding the perceived safety of plastics. The industry clearly has profit, rather than the public’s best interest, in mind.

Are BPA-free plastics really safe?

The PR efforts of the plastic and chemical industries have led to public confusion about the safety of plastics and have obstructed the development of regulations for plastic chemicals in the United States. Who should we trust, industry or unbiased scientific research? I think, given the large body of peer-reviewed, third-party research that continues to be published on the harmful health effects of plastics, we should do everything we can to limit our exposure to them.

The research continues to be clear: Plastics are making us sick

Despite the best efforts of the chemical industry to obscure the dangerous truth about plastics, scientists continue to churn out research linking chemicals in plastics to significant health problems. Recent research indicates that, in addition to promoting chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, BPA also harms male and female fertility. It inhibits sperm motility by decreasing levels of ATP in sperm cells, while also impairing proteins that facilitate fertilization and embryonic development (8). BPA also damages female reproductive organs, inhibits embryo implantation into the uterine wall, and impairs the female reproductive cycle (9). Furthermore, we have recently learned that BPA has harmful effects at both high and very low doses (10).

Phthalates, another ubiquitous plastic chemical found in children’s toys, vinyl, and personal care products, also continue to be associated with a wide range of adverse health effects. Exposure to phthalates is associated with DNA damage in human sperm and lowered testosterone, which may contribute to infertility (11, 12). Recent research also demonstrates that phthalates impair cognitive development and promote allergic disorders in children (13, 14).

We have also learned that both BPA and phthalates have epigenetic health effects; this means that BPA induces alterations in gene expression that can be passed down through multiple generations. Parents’ BPA exposure thus has the potential to cause health problems in their children, and possibly even their grandchildren (15, 16).

As consumer awareness of the harmful effects of BPA and phthalates has increased, BPA and phthalate-free products have become increasingly available. But are these products really any better? Alarmingly, current evidence suggests that these alternative plastic products contain chemicals that may be just as harmful, if not worse, than BPA and phthalates themselves.

A study published in Environmental Health indicates that almost all plastics, including BPA- and phthalate-free products, release chemicals with estrogenic activity (17). Bisphenol S (BPS) and triphenyl phosphate (TPP) are two chemicals often found in BPA-free products. Items containing these chemicals have been marketed as “safe” alternatives to BPA-containing plastics, but it turns out that BPS has endocrine-disrupting effects that are very similar to BPA, and TPP is even more estrogenic than BPA (18, 19)!

How have plastics manufacturers managed to get away with using increasingly toxic chemicals in their products, all the while marketing them as “healthy, BPA-free” alternatives? This practice is made possible by the FDA, which presumes chemicals to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means that BPA-free plastic alternatives are not tested for other potentially toxic compounds before becoming available to consumers, making consumers the lab rats in one enormous science experiment.

Is EA-free the new BPA-free?

While the BPA-free label was once all the rage, the growing evidence of the dangers of BPA-free plastics has led to the development of a new plastics label: EA-free. EA stands for “estrogenic activity,” and the EA-free label on plastic products indicates that they have been found to be free of harmful estrogenic activity. Theoretically, this could help solve the mystery of whether your BPA-free water bottle contains other estrogenic chemicals. However, while the label sounds good in theory, it has not translated to improved quality standards. Plastics manufacturers have been taking advantage of the EA-free label and engaging in misleading marketing. For example, a corporation called Eastman Chemical has been marketing one of its products, Tritan plastic, as EA-free, even though third-party testing found that Tritan contains other estrogenic chemicals. Unfortunately, Eastman has been able to continue advertising its product as a “healthy, BPA-free” alternative by designing its own research studies (which, unsurprisingly, find Tritan to be safe) and by throwing its weight around in court, effectively crushing scientific opposition (20).

So, what are we to do about this plastic situation? Given the available evidence, I recommend that people try to avoid all types of plastics, even ones labeled as EA-free. At this point, it’s just not possible to tell which plastics do and don’t have estrogenic activity, and given the abundant evidence on the harmful health effects of chemicals in plastics, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Tips for reducing your exposure to plastics

  • Use glass cups for drinking.
  • Instead of plastic water bottles, use stainless steel or glass.
  • Use glass containers for food storage.
  • Never heat food in plastic containers.
  • Use parchment paper or beeswax fabric instead of plastic wrap.
  • Avoid canned foods, as the linings typically contain BPA or a BPA alternative.
  • Read labels on cosmetics and personal care products, and avoid those that contain phthalates in the ingredients list.
  • Skip the receipt, as most have a BPA coating.
  • Choose wood or fabric toys for children instead of plastic.

Now I’d like to hear from you. What steps do you take to avoid plastic? Are there some things you have difficulty finding alternatives for? Let us know in the comments below!

51 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. I’m concerned about the chemical components of plastic turf fields that seem to be ubiquitous in parks and schools. I know all about the dangers of chopped rubber infill, but I’m specifically looking for information on how the heating of the plastic fields in the sun affects kids through inhalation, ingestion, and skin absorption. It’s challenging to find out exactly what is in these blades of plastic “grass” – does anyone have resources to help me? Thanks!!

  2. Hi,
    I realize this question is late to the game but for storage, are glass Pyrex containers with plastic tops ok? And if not, then what options do we have for food storage?
    Thank you.
    Tom

  3. Curious for suggestions – I work in retail and hand customers receipts regularly as part of my job, as well as prescription labels which probably contain BPA as well. What suggestions do people offer?? Should I wear gloves all day long? Do the gloves have chemicals to avoid as well ?

    Guy

    • Check out this previous article I wrote on this subject: https://chriskresser.com/how-plastic-food-containers-could-be-making-you-fat-infertile-and-sick/

      Specifically, scroll down to the 11-7-11 update. You’ll find that Dr. Stuart Yaniger, a scientist who has sounded the alarm about estrogenic compounds in plastics, tested silicon and found that it leaches chemicals with EA as well.

      I was sad to learn that because I was considering using silicon bags in my Sous Vide cookers.

    • Maybe Connie means “silicone breast implants” …and I know quite a few “older women” who had these after breast cancer surgery. And by the way re. “estrogenic compounds” in plastics: how do they affect post-menopausal women, who usually are LOW in estrogens and fertility is no longer an issue?

  4. I have long used store receipts to track purchases for budgeting purposes. Does anyone have suggestions on how to get this done without handling the receipts?
    Mahalo
    Kevin

    • One option is to pay with a credit card and just use your online credit card statement to track. Another is to get a scanner app on your mobile device (I like Scanner Pro but there are many options) and take pictures of your receipts. You’d still have to handle them a bit, but less often. I always just tell the checker at the store that I don’t need the receipt and to recycle it. I also tell them they should wear gloves if they aren’t already.

      The absolute worst thing to do is use hand sanitizer and THEN handle receipts. That dramatically increases the absorption of BPA.

  5. In conjunction with using these bags for sous vide cooking has anyone done a study showing the BPA has got into the food? As the food is cooked in a large bath of hot water surely the plasticisers will leach to the water rather than the inside of the bag.

  6. I started to put my produce in plastic bags again because I wanted to avoid the cashiers touching them with their hands full of BPA. Not to mention the counters. I’m pretty convinced that any chemicals in those bags are less harmful for my health than BPA, but I feel pretty bad for the environment.

    The worst though is the amount of jobs I can’t work at because of the BPA receipts are everywhere.

  7. What a great and timely article, thank you!!! One thing I’m having trouble with is my tmj mouth guard for clenching that I wear at night. It is bpa free, but I’m sure has the other chemicals, not to mention I wear it in my mouth all night long so it’s body temperature. I have numerous health issues and would like to be able to not have to wear it, but if I don’t, I wake up with horrible headache from clenching all night long.

    • I have torus mandibularis (believed to be caused from grinding the teeth) and wear a night guard because a dentist once told me that grinding had caused a crack in one of my teeth. When I learned that BPA free was not a safe alternative I weighed things back and forth for a time but continued to wear my guard. My health continues to improve. Tweaking the B vitamins seems to have been the final key for me.

  8. For cooking food at low temperatures, there are two options. You could get creative at using say a covered petri dish or other lab glassware in boiling water to cook food with limited exposure to heat. My own technique is to slowly heat food and put in a tablespoon of water with eggs or under meats which improves heat transfer, reduces pan temperature to below boiling and steams food from both sides if a cover is used. This allows the beautiful cooking of eggs and meats without the browning process common to most cooking.

  9. Chris, I have to say that in some instances, plastic saves our lives. I have undergone extensive dental restoration (every tooth in my mouth was crowned using nickel backing with porcelain fired onto it) and the only material I did not react to was plastic, because it is completely metal-free. Since then, I’ve been amazed at the degree of health I’ve achieved and continue to do so. Just want to remind others that plastic can be more healing than the alternative, especially in dental materials which are in your body 24/7. This may apply to other body-part replacements as well.

  10. Hey Chris – What do we really know about the safety of stainless steel bottles? I keep wondering if those aren’t leaking metals especially when I put tea in my travel mug. Please advise. And thanks for all the ways you help us stay healthy!

  11. I’m old enough to remember when plastic was a novelty!
    When it arrived on the scene, our mothers thought it was the most wonderful thing and it was a status symbol to have your kitchen full of it. Sadly, we now think it is a necessary part of life, ..or at least the Industry does. I’m lucky enough to buy my meat direct from the farm, but what about all the ‘trays’ the meat, fish and poultry sits on in the Supermarket shelves.
    What about the lacquers on the floor boards, our now almost ‘plastic cars’, plastic seating almost everywhere, etc.
    I buy water because of the fluoride, chlorine etc., but notice now that the container has a very fine plastic film inside! You can’t win,…only do the best you can.

    • How is your farm-sourced meat packaged? This week and last week I’ve been butchering about 30 roosters for the freezer but my only “good” option is to vacuum-seal them in plastic. I can’t imagine old-fashioned butcher paper (not plastic-lined) would keep the meat very well for the long-term. Is there any other option?

  12. If someone can avoid ‘all’ contact with canned fish and tomatoes, all plastic containers and receipts, personal products, cleaners, etc. etc. more power to them. I’m doing my best and am exposed to very little, but sometimes it feels overwhelming to have to be the one doing all the avoiding while the companies keep getting an easy pass. Really fed up with our culture a lot of the time, but I’ll continue to fight and learn and avoid, avoid, avoid the pushers.

    • I agree, I do what I can but have not been able to avoid bottled water or some cans.
      I take DIM and Sulforophane supplements along with calcium-d-glucarate to hopefully help get the bad stuff out of my body

  13. I generally avoid canned foods, but with sardines, there’s really no way around it. The kind I get is BPA free, but still, we don’t know what the alternative it. Any solutions? I wish we could get fresh/frozen sardines.

  14. Unfortunately in San Diego the water is disgusting so I have to buy bottled water.
    Chloramines and Fluoride are very difficult to remove especially when you live in an apartment

    • Steve – I order my bottled water in big glass bottles – Mountain Valley spring water. They have deliveries in almost every city. Plus, there are some good water filters that filter out chloramines and fluoride. 🙂

      • I haven’t found one that acutally works. I tried an expensive Multipure countertop filter and the water still tasted like chloramines.
        My sister has a whole house filter and her water still tastes like chloramines.
        It is nasty stuff and hard to remove

          • I bought the one with the catalytic carbon and it didn’t help
            That unit looks good but no way it could fit on my counter

        • Steve, get an Aquaspace carafe. I have been using it for years. Water is filtered as good as it can get. I never taste anything but clear water.

          It has a charcoal filter but you have to get a pitcher for the water to go.

          • Sorry, but “taste” is not reliable, when it comes to detecting contaminates in your filtered water! And counter-top filter carafes like Brita, have their own problems. Years ago in Europe there was a lot of publicity about that! I tell everyone to avoid them like the plague.

        • I don’t buy bottled water, chlorine can be bound up by using sulfites. My son has an allergy to sulfites. We use a goldcarb water filter it takes out flouride as well. It’s a whole of house water filter so every tap etc has purified water. Our skin has never felt better, so soft don’t even need a moisturiser, can’t image what chlorine would be doing to your insides.

    • We bought three five gallon water jugs, fill them at bulk water stations (most grocery stores have them now) for 30 cents a gallon and invested in a bottom loader dispenser (any will do but we like how easy it is to load and unload).

      • Until I read your comment I had no idea there was such a thing as a bottom load water cooler. Thanks for mentioning it! I have a bad neck so my husband has to change the bottles on our top load model. When it craps out we’ll definitely switch to a bottom load.

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