No Such Thing as “Safe” Plastic?

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: December 2nd, 2016 | Read time: 4 minutes

Just when you thought you had BPA-free dialed in, and had slowly converted all your water bottles, food containers, lunchboxes, sippy cups, etc. over to the plastic alternatives that proudly advertise themselves as BPA free, disturbing new cases of chemical creep have emerged. For example, just last year Tritan, a relatively recent plastic alternative billed as “revolutionary” and “ultra-safe,” has tested positive for estrogenic behavior.

Is BPA-Free Safe?

Maybe safe and plastic are mutually exclusive terms.

When BPA became synonymous with toxic because of its association with hormone disruptors, it heralded the end of an era. All that plastic had to be replaced. But nobody really knew what they were replacing it with, and because of a loophole in the way the government identifies dangerous chemicals, only a tiny fraction of 80,000 chemicals that are in commercial use in the United States have been tested for safety. Most chemicals in the U.S.—as opposed to Europe—are considered innocent until proven guilty. That means they can be used until they are shown conclusively to cause harm.

It’s a reactive, not a proactive policy.

A recent expose in Mother Jones goes into great detail about the current state of BPA and the backstory on the current alternatives. Since the anti-BPA movement gained momentum in 2007, parents started clamoring for a legislated ban BPA because of its status as a hormone disruptor. In 2012, BPA was officially banned from baby bottles and several states, including California, have banned the chemical in baby and children’s products. A growing number of manufacturers have since removed it from water bottles and food containers, and Whole Foods has even stopped using register tape (receipts) because the paper often contains BPA.

It’s been a well-fought war with a seeming well-earned victory. The hormone disruptor has been linked to a mother lode of side effects, such as causing reproductive, immunity and neurological problems, as well as childhood asthma, metabolic disease, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

New Wave Enviro Bottle
Sip safely with a stainless steel water bottle.

In the new age of BPA transparency, everything was fine, or so it seemed. Almost every food-oriented plastic thing you bought, even if it was from China, proudly proclaimed itself as BPA-free. But just what was the substitute—exactly?

According to the Mother Jones article, “Unfortunately, many plasticizers are also endocrine disruptors similar to BPA, which means that they could cause many of the same health issues. According to Carl Baum, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine and the Director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Toxicology, some plasticizers may be even be more dangerous for our children than BPA.”

Recent research gives that assertion chops. A study commissioned by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), an Oakland, California-based organization, used two independent labs to test 35 children’s sippy cups. The unsettling results? Nine models labeled as BPA-free yielded moderate to high levels of estrogenic activity, meaning they contained chemicals that mimicked natural estrogen—and disrupted hormones.

One of BPA’s most popular replacement has been Tritan, a clear plastic developed in 2007 that promoted itself as “the only plastic free of all estrogenic activity.” Andrew Weil jumped on the Tritan bandwagon with a line of Weil baby bottles, and Thermos, Nalgene, CamelBack, Evenflo, Cuisinart, Tupperware, Rubbermaid and many other companies included Tritan into their production lines.

You can probably guess where there is leading. Tritan’s main ingredient— triphenyl phosphate, or TPP—may be even worse than BPA.

While the courts have yet to disprove Tritan’s marketing claims, the controversy surrounding it and other plasticizers has started to bubble up. NPR, Democracy Now, and other leading news organizations have covered the story—and possible cover up.

And it turns out to be just the tip of the estrogen. Mariah Blake, the author of the Mother Jones expose, says the corn-based plastic touted as biodegradable and used in many health food stores such as Whole Foods, consistently has tested to be estrogenic. Even Saran Wrap, according to Blake, tests high for estrogenic activity.

Explore your plastic resistance

So what’s a health conscious consumer to do? It seems reasonable, if slightly radical, to avoid plastic whenever you have a choice. Choosing leach-free materials like glass or stainless steel is a good bet. Think twice before buying anything plastic—especially if it says BPA-free. Be creative when looking for alternatives—wax paper is a great way to pack your kid’s lunch. And make things from scratch, rather than bringing plastic home from the supermarket. Until more research it out, better to take a precautionary approach. Plastic, ubiquitous as it is, may do a body—and the planet—considerable harm.