BPA Replacements Aren't Safe Either, Study Finds

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Scientists have found that the chemicals used to replace BPA over the past 20 years have the same damaging effects.

Twenty years ago, scientists made the accidental discovery that mice housed in damaged plastic cages were contaminated with bisphenol A (BPA). They had been studying female eggs from young females and saw a sudden rise in scrambled chromosomes. Subsequent studies showed that BPA does indeed have a serious effect on the developing brain, heart, lung, prostate, mammary gland, sperm and eggs. This spurred a widespread rejection of BPA in many consumer products, which is why it's now common to see 'BPA-free' labels on certain plastics.

Now the same research team is back with more disturbing news, just published in the journal Current Biology: BPA replacement chemicals aren't safe either. Study co-author Patricia Hunt from Washington State University calls it "a strange déjà vu experience for our laboratory." Once again, the researchers noticed changes in control animals that were traced to exposure to damaged cages and subsequent contamination. That's when Hunt and her colleagues realized that the mice were exposed to chemicals from the bisphenol family that are used to replace BPA.

The team did further studies after replacing all cages and water bottles in their facility. These confirmed that "replacement bisphenols produce remarkably similar chromosomal abnormalities to those seen so many years earlier in studies of BPA." Although the studies focused on rodents, the dosage was low enough to be relevant to what humans using BPA-free plastics would be exposed to. It was found that, even after the source of contamination was eliminated, its effects were felt for three generations.

What's also intriguing is the fact that bisphenols have infiltrated so many aspects of our lives that it is difficult to know if a study's control group is uncontaminated. As Hunt and co-author Tegan Horan explain in an article on Science Alert,

"BPA use is so prevalent in consumer products and routine laboratory materials (like mouse caging materials or culture flasks) that low-level contamination of unexposed control groups is increasingly difficult to avert."

This is why the team is wary of findings from a big study just coming out now called CLARITY-BPA. Conducted by three U.S. agencies, it was launched "to understand why findings from traditional toxicology studies of BPA and those of independent investigators differ." Hunt and Horan are worried about drawing conclusions from CLARITY data, however, because "there is no way to determine the impact of low-level contamination."

Bisphenols are just one family of chemicals that we should be concerned about. Other major environmental contaminant groups include parabens, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), phthalates, flame retardants, and quaternary ammonium compounds. The researchers say that regulation cannot keep up with innovation, which could have serious health repercussions for consumers. From the article by Hunt and Horan:

"The bisphenol story details the evolution of only one class of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are common contaminants in our lives. The ability of manufacturers to rapidly modify chemicals to produce structurally similar replacements undermines the ability of consumers to protect themselves from hazardous chemicals and federal efforts to regulate them."

The best way to avoid bisphenols is to stay away from plastics, particularly if they show signs of wear and tear. Food storage containers and water bottles should be replaced with glass, metal, and ceramics. Beer and soda cans, which are another source of bisphenols that many people don't usually think about, are best substituted by glass bottles.