Research Warns BPA-Free Plastic Bottles Still Toxic to Infants and Toddlers

Health + Wellness

Michael Green, an environmental health executive and father of a feisty toddler named Juliette, worked to rid his cabinets of baby bottles and plastic cups containing the additive bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics estrogen and has been linked to serious health problems like cancer, diabetes, miscarriages and obesity.

According to recent research, some BPA-free products, like bottles and sippy cups, actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Green switched to BPA-free plastics to solve the issue, but was alarmed when he found research suggesting some of these "healthier" bottles and cups contained synthetic estrogens as well.

To get a more definitive answer, Green turned to the company he runs, the Californ0a-based Center for Environmental Health, to see just what additives were used to form the BPA-free plastics.

Mother Jones reports:  

The center shipped Juliette's plastic cup, along with 17 others purchased from Target, Walmart and Babies R Us, to CertiChem, a lab in Austin, TX. More than a quarter—including Juliette's—came back positive for estrogenic activity.

These results mirrored the lab's findings in its broader National Institutes of Health-funded research on BPA-free plastics. CertiChem and its founder, George Bittner, who is also a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin, had recently coauthored a paper in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives. 

It reported that "almost all" commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren't exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher or the sun's ultraviolet rays. According to Bittner's research, some BPA-free products actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.

Estrogen plays an integral role in just about everything from bone growth and ovulation to heart function. Too much or too little, especially in utero or during early childhood, can alter brain and organ development, leading to certain diseases later in life. For instance, elevated estrogen levels generally increase a woman's risk of breast cancer.

Estrogenic chemicals found in several common products have been tied to a myriad of problems in humans and animals.

Scientists have linked BPA to ailments including asthma, cancer, infertility, low sperm count, genital deformity, heart disease, liver problems and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. "Pick a disease, literally pick a disease," said Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies BPA, to Mother Jones. 

Plastics Industry Combats Troubling BPA-Free Research

In 2008, major news sources, like The Huffington Post, The New York Times and Good Morning America, issued health alerts over baby products containing BPA, and urged Congress and retailers to ban BPA in baby products due to its toxicity and links to cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Walmart and Babies R Us took note and started pulling plastics containing BPA from their shelves.

Now, countless plastic products, from sippy cups and blenders to Tupperware containers, are advertised as BPA-free; however, Bittner's findings—some of which have been confirmed by other scientists—suggest that many of these alternatives share the qualities that make BPA so potentially harmful.

Following the release of Bittner's troubling conclusions, a fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry ensued.

The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has worked to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical to diminish Bittner and his research.

The company has told corporate customers the Environmental Protection Agency discredited Bittner's testing methods. It has not.

Eastman Chemical, the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic listed as BPA-free, sued CertiChem to prevent it from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic by convincing a jury that its product was free of estrogenic activity.

It also launched a public relations campaign promoting Tritan's safety, which was targeted at families with young children. 

"It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe," the vice president of Eastman's specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in a web video, before an image of a pregnant woman popped on screen. With Tritan, he added, "consumers can feel confident that the material used in their products is free of estrogenic activity."

After the Mother Jones BPA March/April 2014 cover story went to press, the magazine published the following update today on its website:

After this story went to press, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a paper finding that BPA was safe in low doses. However, the underlying testing was done on a strain of lab rat known as the Charles River Sprague Dawley, which doesn't readily respond to synthetic estrogens, such as BPA. And, due to laboratory contamination, all of the animals—including the control group—were exposed to this chemical. Academic scientists say this raises serious questions about the study's credibility.

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.

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