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Busting consumer safety myths about BPA-free plastics

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Since plastics were first produced in the early 1900s, they have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. The term “plastic” covers an array of organic and inorganic compounds. Substances, known as plasticisers, are often added to the raw ingredients to shape or stabilise plastics. To manufacture clear hard plastic, a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) or its alternatives bisphenol S (BPS) or bisphenol F (BPF) are often utilised.[1] [2] For soft, flexible plastic, however, phthalates are often used.[3] 

All of these substances are known to be harmful endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).[4] [5] [6] EDCs can affect the body’s development, growth and hormone balance by mimicking, blocking or otherwise disrupting the body’s natural hormones.[7] [8] Unborn and young children seem to be more susceptible; for example EDC exposure during early foetal development increases the probability of negative health outcomes later in life, including cancers, neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders, asthma and immune disorders.[9] 

It is an unfortunate fact that these toxic chemicals can leach from plastic containers into food. Worse still, many of the actions that we do to food containers can increase the level of migration of the toxic chemicals. Exposing plastic to heat by processes such as washing at high temperatures, microwaving or adding hot food or liquid can increase the leaching of chemicals into the contents, as can mechanical stress and exposure to sunlight. Furthermore, toxin migration is likely to be greater when plastic comes into contact with fatty foods such as meat or cheese.[10]

BPA is proven dangerous, and the use of BPA in the manufacture of baby bottles has now been prohibited in the USA and the EU. However it is often replaced with BPS or BPF, which are currently still authorised for use in baby bottles, despite them causing many of the same harmful effects as BPA.[11] This means that even products marketed as “BPA-free” can still be dangerous to use, as its toxic alternatives (BPS or BPF) are still commonly found in baby bottles, other food containers and all other plastic goods. These other food-contact goods, especially reusable bottles used during sports, are often left in the car or carried around in warm weather, where increased temperatures increase the risk of contamination by leached toxic chemicals.[12] The type and amount of chemical that leaches into the food or drink depends on numerous factors, including the type of plastic, the time for which it is heated, and the condition of the plastic container.[13] However it is not just through our food that we are exposed to these toxic EDCs; in the case of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) we are also exposed via dust inhalation and our household furniture, our car upholstery and even our electronic devices.[14]

Testing of chemical migration from plastic does form part of the legislation regarding the use of plastic containers for storing food, however regulations are potentially not stringent enough to protect us fully, as they do not account for cumulative exposures or multiple exposure routes in our households. Testing involves measuring the quantity of chemicals that leach into the food during “normal use”.[15] However, when the overall migration is below the limit considered safe by the relevant regulatory body, risk assessments on specific harmful substances may not be carried out. Worse still, testing measures the quantities of toxins leaching into one serving of food, without taking into consideration the frequency at which an individual is exposed to these toxins, or the multiple routes through which they may be exposed. Exposure can be high when plastic containers are used frequently, or when the individual is exposed to toxic chemicals from a range of sources in addition to food, such as widespread exposure to PBDEs in a variety of household products, including dust.[14]

Given the potential for such dangerous contamination of our food from plastic containers, the best choice for food storage and heating may therefore be to use safer alternatives. While some plastics may claim to be a ‘safer’ alternative, such as products marketed as “BPA-free”, they may still leach harmful chemicals such as EDCs into food and drink, as toxic BPA has simply been replaced with equally dangerous BPS and BPF. In fact these chemicals may actually be more dangerous, as they have shown the potential for even greater EDC activity.[16] This bending of the rules by manufacturers, coupled with poor regulation, mean that plastic alternatives, such as glass, are the safer option to limit your toxin exposure. But be sure to check the seal of your glass container lids though - these are often made using potentially toxic plastics additives too.

 

 

[1] Halden, RU. (2010) Plastics and health risks. Ann Rev Pub Health. 31. 179-194.

[2] Viñas, R. & Watson, CS. (2013) Bisphenol S disrupts estradiol-induced nongenomic signaling in a rat pituitary cell line: effects on cell functions. Environ Health Perspect. 121(3). 352-8.

[3] Shen, H-Y. (2005) Simultaneous screening and determination eight phthalates in plastic products for food use by sonication-assisted extraction/GC–MS methods. Talanta. 66(3). 734-9.

[4] Mersha, MD. et al. (2015) Effects of BPA and BPS exposure limited to early embryogenesis persist to impair non-associative learning in adults. Behav Brain Funct. [epub ahead of print] doi: 10.1186/s12993-015-0071-y 

[5]  Qiu, W. et al. (2016) Actions of Bisphenol A and Bisphenol S on the Reproductive Neuroendocrine System During Early Development in Zebrafish. Endocrinology. 157(2). 636-47.

[6] Sheikh, IA. et al. (2016) Endocrine Disruption: Computational Perspectives on Human Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin and Phthalate Plasticizers. PLoS One. 11(3). [epub ahead of print] doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0151444.

[7] Casals-Casas, C. &  Desvergne, B. (2011) Endocrine disruptors: from endocrine to metabolic disruption. Ann Rev Physiol. 73. 135-62.

[8] Roy, J. et al. (2009) Estrogen-like endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting puberty in humans--a review. Med Sci Monit. 15(6). RA137-45.

[9] Landrigan, P. et al. (2003) Assessing the effects of endocrine disruptors in the National Children's Study. Environ Health Perspect. 111(13). 1678-82.

[10] Munguía-López, EM. et al. (2005) Migration of bisphenol A (BPA) from can coatings into a fatty-food simulant and tunafish. Food Addit Contam. 22(9). 892-8.

[11] Eladak, S et al. (2015) A new chapter in the bisphenol A story: bisphenol S and bisphenol F are not safe alternatives to this compound. Fertil Steril. 103(1). 11-21.

[12] Greifenstein, M. et al.(2013) Impact of temperature and storage duration on the chemical and odor quality of military packaged water in polyethylene terephthalate bottles. Sci Total Environ. 456-7. 376-83.

[13] Cooper, JE. et al. (2011) Assessment of bisphenol A released from reusable plastic, aluminium and stainless steel water bottles. Chemosphere. 85(6). 943-7.

[14] Imm, P. et al. (2009) Household exposures to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in a Wisconsin cohort. Environ Health Perspect. 117(12). 1890-5.

[15] Intertek. (2016) European Union Food Packaging and Materials Migration Testing. Retrieved April 2016 from, http://www.intertek.com/packaging/testing/food-migration/

[16] Chen, D. et al. (2016) Bisphenol Analogues Other Than BPA: Environmental Occurrence, Human Exposure, and Toxicity - A Review. Environ Health Perspect. 50(11). 5438-53. 
 

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