readers know, bisphenol A (BPA) is used in the formulation of polycarbonate and epoxy resins and, as such, is present in a broad range of products, from food packaging to bulletproof law enforcement gear. Some studies have linked exposure to the chemical with health risks, especially in infants, but after considerable review of scientific evidence, FDA, the European Food Safety Authority and other government agencies have declared BPA to be safe at current exposure levels. The court of public opinion was not swayed, however, and many companies introduced BPA-free plastic products to gain a marketing advantage.
Here's the rub: Bisphenol S (BPS), which is commonly used to replace BPA, has also been linked to health risks, most recently in a study led by the University of California Los Angeles, (UCLA). The study, which was published in the Feb. 1, 2016, edition of the journal Endocrinology, is the first to examine the effects of BPA and BPS on brain cells and genes that control the growth and function of organs involved in reproduction. It found that BPS speeds up embryonic development and disrupts the reproductive system in zebrafish.
Calling it the aquatic version of the canary in the coal mine, Nancy Wayne, the study's senior author, a reproductive endocrinologist and professor of physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and her colleagues found that when zebrafish were exposed to either BPA or BPS at low levels—equivalent to the traces found in polluted river waters—their physiology at the embryonic stage changed in as quickly as 25 hours. "Egg-hatching time accelerated, leading to premature birth," said Wayne, who is also UCLA's Associate Vice Chancellor for Research. "The embryos developed much faster than normal in the presence of BPA or BPS."
"Exposure to low levels of BPA had a significant impact on the embryos' development of brain cells that control reproduction and the genes that control reproduction later in life," Wayne said. "We saw many of these same effects with BPS found in BPA-free products. BPS is not harmless."
Researchers have proposed that endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as BPA and BPS may be contributing to the rise in premature human births and early onset of puberty over the past couple of decades in the United States.
Previous studies also have questioned the safety of BPS. In January 2015, PlasticsToday reported on research conducted at the University of Calgary in Canada that found that "BPA and BPS caused alterations in brain development leading to hyperactivity in zebrafish."
In an abundance of caution, the use of BPA was banned in baby bottles in the European Union in 2011, and FDA has banned its use in baby bottles and sippy cups. However, in "Questions and Answers on Bisphenol A (BPA) Use in Food Contact Applications" on the FDA website, the agency unequivocally states that BPA is safe "for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging."
Regardless, the damage has been done as far as public opinion is concerned, and BPA free has become a clarion call for the anti-plastics crowd and the worried well.
The irony is that the remedy—BPS, in this case—may be no better than the perceived problem posed by BPA.
The article describing Wayne's study on the UCLA website notes that she has discarded all plastic containers in her household since completing a study on BPA in 2008 and replaced them with glass.
That's one option, certainly. But it's worth remembering, as the American Chemistry Council has noted, "Plastic food packaging, whether made with BPA or other materials, continues to deliver real benefits to millions of consumers throughout the world. In fact, it's widely known that plastic packaging protects food to help keep people safe and healthy."