Just because it’s BPA free doesn’t mean it’s safe

“BPA free” is quite the buzz claim these days, slapped on everything from soup cans to Camelbaks to pacifiers. And for good reason: Bisphenol A—a chemical used to create clear, hard plastics, as well as epoxy resins that line metal containers’ insides—is a known endocrine disruptor with potential neurological, reproductive and cancer-causing effects.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledges BPA’s potential health ramifications, yet the agency wants more research to bolster these claims before it considers banning the chemical’s use in consumer products. Meanwhile, as the feds deliberate, several states have stepped in, enacting their own bans on the manufacture and sale of BPA-leaching children's goods on their respective soils. And as it often goes with assessing chemical toxicity, Canada is ahead of the curve, having declared BPA toxic, aka potentially harmful to health or the environment.

Regardless of U.S. government regulation, or lack thereof, all this anti-BPA banter has caught widespread consumer attention, and manufacturers now market BPA-free products like no tomorrow. And sure enough, consumer demand and manufacturer response is bouncing BPA out of the scene at a fairly rapid rate—which, quite frankly, is awesome and impressive and entirely indicative of consumers’ exponentially mounting power. But here’s where this victory dance slows from a boisterous boot-stomp to a sluggish heel-shuffle. 

BPA may be out, but which other chemicals are in? What are consumer goods manufacturers using in BPA’s place to firm up baby bottles, cast canteens and coat cans of beans? As Dominique Browning points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, some of BPA’s chemical cousins—bisphenol B, F and S, for instance—that are showing up in products may not be so sweet either. Some may even carry greater health risks than BPA.

So why are these alternatives deemed OK while BPA gets roasted? Simple. They’re newish and relatively untested and their ramifications are far from known or able to be accepted as fact. And then, even if a chemical seems safe now, its health problems might not surface for decades (My mom remembers her elementary school teachers telling students to be thankful that their school was chockfull of asbestos—yikes!). Therefore, it’ll be awhile before enough scrutiny sets in to put them up for FDA toxicity debate.  

So this all goes back to the innocent-until-proven-guilty mantra that permeates U.S. public health and safety regulations. Whether it’s personal care, food or children’s toys, ingredients that we have little clue about routinely touch our lives. Of course, we can’t protect ourselves entirely from every potential health saboteur, but we can do well by being skeptical of claims, diligent in research and aware of what’s out there.     

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