'BPA-Free' Products May Still Contain BPA

New tests from Canada find trace amounts of the chemical BPA in “BPA-free” bottles.

August 11, 2009

Plastic bottles may be unsafe, no matter what the label says.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Parents with new babies don’t want to expose those tiny little bodies to chemicals that can cause long-term health problems, which is why the market for baby bottles and other baby food containers made without the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) has boomed in the past year. Numerous studies have linked the chemical to diseases including cancer, obesity, and diabetes, and as a result, cities and states in the U.S., as well as the Canadian government, have banned its use in products designed for children. However, a recent test by the Canadians has found that a “BPA-free” label may not guarantee a BPA-free product.


THE DETAILS: Health Canada, a government agency that oversees public-health and product-safety issues, tested a variety of baby bottles labeled bisphenol-A free that were made from polysulfone, polystyrene, or polypropylene plastics. None of these plastics are actually made with BPA. However, the government scientists detected “very low trace amounts” of BPA—in concentrations as low as parts per trillion—in some of the BPA-free plastic bottles it tested.

The names of the companies whose products were tested weren’t disclosed, but manufacturers of BPA-free bottles reacted quickly to the tests, calling the agency’s methods flawed. Rodale.com contacted one manufacturer of these bottles, Green To Grow, who said they test their bottles regularly for BPA and have never had a problem. A few days after the test results were published by a Canadian news agency, Health Canada released a statement saying that BPA-free baby bottles were still safe and that the levels found were too low to cause harm. The agency’s complete findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal later this year, say Health Canada officials.

WHAT IT MEANS: Because none of the plastics tested contained BPA, the source of the chemical detected in the tests is unclear. One possibility is that the manufacturers of the bottles use molds that contain BPA to make the products, and dust from those molds winds up in or on the plastic, says Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund, an advocacy group that reviews scientific evidence on how chemical exposures can influence breast cancer. If that’s the case, she says, “These manufacturers should be tracing the process for possible contamination. If the label says ‘BPA free,’ it should be BPA free, period. I would think that it’s splitting hairs to say that a little bit doesn’t matter.”

While the levels detected in this test are extremely low, there’s no evidence showing that such low-level exposure is safe. BPA interferes with the body’s endocrine system, which regulates hormones. “The endocrine system can be triggered prenatally in terms of infant exposures through very low doses,” says Nudelman. “BPA in concentrations in the parts per billion or parts per trillion range can cross the placenta and alter the mammary glands of a developing fetus, predisposing that fetus to breast cancer later in life,” she says. Another advocacy group, the Environmental Working Group, has found that BPA exposure in the parts per billion range is low enough to interfere with cell development, which can lead to other chronic problems like obesity and diabetes; studies have linked BPA to both health problems.

Worried about BPA in your baby bottles and other food and beverage containers? Follow this advice:

• Rely on nonplastic options. “I commend the manufacturers that are going BPA free,” says Nudelman. “They’re responding to very real consumer demand and very real health problems.” But, she adds, in the end, plastic is still plastic. So consider BPA-free plastic to be a backup plan. “Glass and stainless steel would always be the best way to go,” she says. If not for the fact that they’re guaranteed BPA free, then for reasons of disposal and recycling. Currently, the new BPA-free plastics aren’t recycled, while glass and stainless steel are very easy to reuse and recycle.

• Don’t lick the jar lid. Before they tested BPA-free bottles, Health Canada tested baby food jars and found trace amounts of BPA in glass baby food jars, thanks to a resin used to prevent food from reacting with the inside of the metal lids. Despite that, food packaged in glass is still better than food packaged in polycarbonate plastics, says Nudelman. “In the best of all worlds, children and pregnant women would be exposed to no BPA whatsoever,” she says. “But it is a process. We have to be realistic.”

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