Why BPA-Free Plastic Isn’t Always Safer

The Slightly Greener Podcast | Episode 7

May 3, 2023

Welcome back to another episode of The Slightly Greener Life! I’m so ready to dive into today’s topic of why BPA-Free isn’t always safer, and what to use instead.

What is BPA?

In the last couple weeks, we’ve talked about hormone disruptors and safer cookware so I thought we’d stick in the kitchen and talk about BPA. BPA (which is short for Bisphenol A) is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic, that is used in many consumer products. But what’s surprising is that the biggest exposure to BPA is through foods & beverages? Who would have thought?!?

Where BPA is Found

So it’s in many different products but for time’s sake today will just stick with it in the kitchen since foods and beverages are our biggest exposures to BPA.

One of the reasons that our biggest exposure is through food is because one of the common places BPA is found is in canned foods – even in most aluminum beverage cans.

It’s typically found in epoxy resins of the cans, which act as a protective lining on the inside of some metal-based food and beverage cans. 

But it’s also found in other items in the kitchen – in plastic water bottles, plastic reusable water bottles, plastic food storage containers, plastic bowls and dishes, plastic utensils – you get the picture here. It’s in a lot of things that surround our food!

Let’s start by doing a quick review of endocrine disruptors, because BPA and the chemicals we’ll be talking about today are known to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Then we’ll talk about the health effects of BPA, and why BPA-free isn’t necessarily a safer option, and we’ll end by jumping into my favorite part – safer solutions.

Health Effects of Endocrine Disruptors

So let’s start with a quick review of endocrine disruptors!

If you listened to episode 5 of the podcast, all about endocrine disruptors, you’ll remember that an endocrine disruptor is a chemical that interferes with our endocrine system, which is where our body’s messengers – the hormones- are made. 

These endocrine disruptors (which you may also hear them be called hormone disruptors) can interfere with hormone production in a few different ways:

  • Blocking hormones and preventing them from doing their job
  • Producing or secreting hormones when they’re not needed
  • Causing an over- or under-production of hormones
  • Imitating hormones

So if you can imagine a chemical imitating or getting in the way of a hormone trying to do its job, you can see where these health issues can crop up. Endocrine disruptors are linked to health effects such as weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular disease, fertility issues, thyroid problems, increased cancer risk, and even neurodevelopmental disorders (such as ADHD and learning disabilities, and autism), and lower IQ, and can even affect things such as hunger, mood, and sleep.

Because BPA acts an endocrine disruptor, it should be no surprise that these health effects are associated with it. And it is a xenoestrogen, which is a natural or synthetic compound introduced into the body that mimics the effects of estrogen or promotes its production.

Studies have linked BPA exposure to health problems like:

  • Breast Cancer 
  • Hormone Disruption
  • Reproductive Disorders 
  • Heart Disease 
  • Obesity
  • Insulin Resistance & Metabolic Syndrome

In addition to that:

A study published in The Environmental Research Journal states that “Prenatal and childhood exposure to BPA have been linked to anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and behavior issues in children.”

And The Yale School of Medicine found that “low doses of BPA can negatively affect brain function, which can lead to learning disabilities and neurodevelopment issues.”

In July 2012, the FDA  amended its regulations to no longer provide for the use of BPA-based polycarbonate resins in baby bottles and sippy cups.

But the problem with this is, companies started to phase out BPA in these and other products, but what they’re using to replace it with might not be any safer.

BPA-Free Substitutes Aren’t Any Safer

BPA (which again is short for Bisphenol A), is commonly replaced with BPS (Bisphenol S) or BPF (Bisphenol F) , which are structurally similar to BPA because they are still members of the bisphenol family, and have similar, if not more potent, health effects.

Although more research needs to be done, the studies so far are a little alarming!

A 2020 study published in Environment International discovered that at age 7, children whose mothers had higher levels of chemicals in their bodies during pregnancy had lower IQ scores. This had a greater impact on boys, whose scores were two points lower. Of all the chemicals studied, the largest contribution to lower IQ was attributed to bisphenol F (BPF).

2022 study in Environmental Health concluded that BPS and BPF exposure may also have the ability to disrupt the endocrine system, and alter levels of sex hormones, again, suggesting BPF and BPS might not be safe substitutes for BPA. 

Exposure to BPF and BPS is associated with asthma and/or hay fever. 

In 2020, the journal Nutrients stated that BPS, “is likely more toxic and seems to cause more pathologies in the reproductive system than the original BPA or any of the other BPA analogues.”

BPS was also demonstrated to be more toxic to the reproductive system than BPA and was shown to hormonally promote certain breast cancers at the same rate as BPA.

BPS decreased sperm motility, and  was also found to decrease sperm production at a concentration ten times lower than other bisphenol derivatives..

The same journal article stated that a 2019 clinical/observational study found that both BPS and BPAF (another BPA substitute) levels were significantly related with gestational diabetes 

Researchers published a study in the journal Pediatric Research that concluded that when children are exposed  to bisphenols (BPS was metntined)  and phthalates (another type of endocrine-disrupting chemical that is often used in plastics), it can cause harmful effects in their bodies.

These effects include increased levels of a type of damage called “oxidant stress”, which can harm cells and organs. It can also lead to insulin resistance, which means the body has trouble using sugar properly. Another effect is albuminuria, which is when the kidneys start leaking a protein called albumin into the urine, and it can be a sign of kidney damage. Lastly, these chemicals can also cause problems with how the blood vessels work, which can lead to health problems down the line, such as heart attack and stroke. function in healthy children.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society analyzed US National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys to look at the relationship between exposure to chemicals, such as BPA, BPS, and BPF, and body mass in children and adolescents aged 6 to 19. The study found that a high percentage of children had detectable levels of BPS and BPF, and that increased BPS levels were associated with a higher likelihood of obesity in children, and BPF was linked to being overweight and having abdominal obesity.

The journal Nutrients stated “Interestingly, every report examined here does state that BPS caused pathological changes when compared to controls; without exception.” BPA replacement known as bisphenol S, or BPS, is likely more toxic and seems to cause more pathologies in the reproductive system than the original BPA or any of the other BPA analogues.

I could go on and on with these studies, but again, for time’s sake we’ll stick with these. I have more info in my membership, but because I don’t want this to be a forever-long episode, I’ll stop at these. Plus, I think we get the picture after hearing these studies: BPS and BPF are most likely not safer than BPA.

Where BPA Can be Found in the Kitchen

Canned foods & beverages

Reusable plastic water bottles

Plastic food storage containers

Plastic cooking utensils

Plastic dish and serverware

What to Use Instead of BPA and BPA-Free Plastic

Some of these tips are tougher than others, and I totally get that. Do as much as you’re comfortable with to start, and then work your way up.

Avoid canned food and drinks – this probably goes for most canned foods that say they’re BPA-free. 

Avoid plastic bottles and food storage containers – even those labeled as BPA-free. If they’re still plastic, one of those bisphenol substitutes are most likely used. Use glass or stainless steel options instead.

LifeFactory, Stanley, and S’Well all have drink and food storage options. I love LifeFactory because even though it’s glass, it has a silicone sleeve around it so it’s not as easily breakable (and trust me – I have accidentally put it to the test more than once!)

And glass Snapware is a great place to start for replacing food storage containers. Keep in mind that the lids are plastic, so I recommend not replacing the lid until the food is cooled off, and don’t let the plastic lid touch the food. Or use a cloth bowl cover to cover the food.

✅ Slightly Greener tip: Don’t worry about replacing all of it right away! Start out with your most-used containers and water bottles and replace those first, then work your way up from there. As for the plastic containers you don’t want to part with yet, storing dry foods like pretzels, cereal, and chips is ok. Just no heat or hot foods!

The next thing you can do is DO NOT microwave plastic or put it into the dishwasher

Chemicals can leach into foods & beverages when the container or reusable water bottle is heated or exposed to heat, either through washing in the dishwasher, washing in hot water, microwaving, leaving the item in a hot car, or placing a hot food or beverage in it.

One great question I get asked about is what to do if a bottled water has been left in a hot car – Can I refrigerate the bottlewhen I get home? Unfortunately the answer is no – the chemicals have already leached, so refrigerating them after they’ve been heated would not work.

Another thing I recommend is to remove the plastic lid when drinking hot liquids (also with to-go cups), for the same reason – hot water running throough the plastic lid, causing more chemicals to leach.

Replace plastic cooking utensils with wood, bamboo, or stainless steel options

And this is a tough one – but replacing plastic kids plates, silverware, and sippy cups is a good idea. This was a tough one for me back in the day! The plastic ones are so cute! But not worth the health risk.  I’ll also recap all these tips there because I know this was a lot of info! And remember, if you can’t replace all of them, just replace one or two items at a time.

The same goes for baby bottles – glass and stainless steel with silicone or natural natural rubber are better options, like LifeFactory.

I know I threw a lot at you here, but I do want you to know the why behind the how, if that makes sense. I don’t want to just tell you “trust me, you want to avoid this stuff!” I want to give you the studies and the facts so that you can be an educated consumer because it’s tricky out there! If you’ve heard BPA is bad, you might buy a plastic food container that says BPA-free – and who wouldn’t? It sounds safer! But now that you know it most likely contains a substitute with similar health effects, you know you probably don’t want to buy it.

Thank you for joining me for another episode of The Slightly Greener Life! I’ll see you next week!