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Is Different Really Better? Considerations for a Safer Plastic.

September 30, 2015

By: René Viñas, Toxicologist, Consumer Product Safety

Plastic consumer products have become a staple of our everyday lives. In my own morning routine: I carry a plastic water bottle during my jog, use a plastic blending cup to prepare my morning shake and pack my lunch with leftovers in a plastic food container. It’s difficult to imagine how one can function without the ease and convenience these products have provided us.

However, manufacturers have come under pressure to ban or reformulate their products with safer plastic alternatives due to the release of chemicals that have endocrine activity (EA) from their products. Numerous controlled studies done on cell culture models in laboratory settings have suggested that these substances are capable of mimicking naturally occurring hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, potentially leading to negative health outcomes.

But it’s important to note that when studies are done using live animals, as in the case of bisphenol-a (BPA), researchers found no negative health outcomes at the current levels found in food and water. Despite the absence of a clear-cut danger from exposure to these chemicals, increased scrutiny by advocacy groups has led to the development of replacements for BPA and similar chemicals.

One has to wonder, are these alternatives really much safer? Is different really better than the original?

Government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Food Safety Authority consider BPA safe at the current levels used. However, one can see shelves of BPA-free products in major grocery stores and markets.

The trouble with many of these BPA-free products is that replacements for BPA have been shown to also have challenges. In a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Health, scientists from the University of Texas-Austin surveyed 50 BPA-free labeled products for EA including baby bottles, food storage containers, plastic packaging and reusable water bottles. While the replacement chemicals were not identified, their results showed that these products still released chemicals with high EA.

Essentially, these scientists concluded that while a product is labeled “BPA-free it did not mean EA-free”.

Bisphenol-S (BPS) is a promising replacement for BPA that is voluntarily already implemented by manufacturers in many consumer products. BPS is more heat-resistant than BPA, causing it to leach less from plastic products and in-turn, decreasing exposure to consumers. Less exposure equals less overall risk of developing negative health outcomes. However, much less is known about the potential toxicity of BPS and initial findings in cell culture models have demonstrated that it has equal estrogenic activity to BPA. Further studies, including animal studies, must still be performed in order to reach a verdict on whether or not BPS is better or worse than BPA.

In 2004, Europe first banned di-2-ethylhexylphlatate (DEHP), a type of plasticizer, due to health concerns from its exposure. U.S. manufacturers voluntarily followed suit and replaced DEHP with di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) and di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP). In a 2015 study from the journal Hypertension, scientists from the New York University School of Medicine found a link between high blood pressure and dietary exposure to DINP and DIDP in participants (ages 6-19) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. These results suggest that these replacements might not offer less risk than the original chemical that was replaced.

While these examples might be concerning, as a society we must recognize that nothing is free of any risk. We must also acknowledge that in our haste to replace something that is not quite ideal we may be risking the possibility of inviting even worse unintended adverse consequences for something that is “different.”

Consumers should keep the science on the forefront and not allow themselves to be influenced by alarmists. While the food, beverage, and consumer product industries have gone to great lengths to assure the public of the safety of the products they purchase, it’s also important to remember that science is always evolving.

Everyone – from scientists to consumers – should continue learning, stay on top of the science, and weigh risks in order to make better decisions for ourselves.


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1 Comment »

  1. Good points. It’s also helpful to understand what we mean by “better” or “worse”. Risk quantification is always helpful rather than subjective wording.

    Comment by L — October 8, 2015 @ 10:16 pm

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