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SNEWS® View: BPA and more oh my…what do we do?

A few alert readers several weeks ago wondered why we had done nothing yet on a new study that had apparently discovered traces of estrogen mimickers in all types of plastic, including those marketed as BPA-free. And yes, we're concerned too, but perhaps not about the obvious.

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A few alert readers several weeks ago wondered why we had done nothing yet on a new study that had apparently discovered traces of estrogen mimickers in all types of plastic, including those marketed as BPA-free. After all, it was SNEWS® that broke the story on exposing BPA in epoxy that once lined most aluminum bottles (click here to read our Aug. 19, 2009 story, “Aluminum bottles you are selling may NOT be BPA-free” ). We’ve been a leader in communicating about the risks of BPA in plastics long before then, with a May 5, 2008, story, “SNEWS® View: BPA reaction driven by the power of consumer perception, right or wrong” and then in Nov. 12, 2003, with our story “Sierra magazine story causes stir over Lexan safety”.

One reader wondered if perhaps we didn’t care about the issue anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do care very much about consumer safety, and part of our role as a media watchdog is to hold retailers and manufacturers accountable for producing safe products. But, at the same time, our role is also to provide balanced information and not just stories that are more about fear-mongering as we too jump on the next panic bandwagon.

Chemicals are a part of life. Natural or synthesized, they do have an effect on our health and well-being … sometimes positive, sometimes not so much. While there appears to be very strong evidence (by no means irrefutable as yet) that BPA is a hazard to human health, far less is known about the effects of estrogen mimickers on human health. Still, every report deserves attention to weigh benefits against identifiable risks.

Yes, it is true that this new report, published March 2, 2011, finds almost all plastics leached chemicals with “reliably detectable” EA (estrogenic activity) – click here to read. As a singular study, most manufacturers’ representatives we spoke with whose companies make products with plastic are taking the report seriously, though it is by no means definitive. If there is a means of making plastic products that are safer to a person, every company representative we have spoken with recently said that is something worth looking into. However, there are certainly some clear issues with this study too:

EA can be found in many chemicals — natural and man-made. Estrogen-mimicking substances found in plants are known as phytoestrogens, while those estrogen-mimicking chemicals found in industrially made compounds are known as xenoestrogens – for example BPA, PCB and phthalates. We’d bet many of us are consuming foods on a weekly basis with phytoestrogens including soy, flax, pomegranate, fennel, hops (yes, gang, beer!), red clover, licorice, and many more.

Chemicals are in everything we consume, drink out of, eat out of, slather on, put on, cook in, and breathe. But just knowing that EA is in hops is not likely to encourage many folks to stop drinking beer, we suspect. Certainly, EA risks are a concern; yet so much more study needs to be done.

We’d argue the more worrisome discussion right now remains around the topic of BPA, and that has nothing to do with consumption at all. We suspect many retailers are unknowingly exposing themselves, their staff and their consumers to a BPA risk – via thermal paper receipts. Thermal paper is used in point-of-sale receipts (i.e., for credit card purchases), shipping or other container labels, automatic teller machine receipts, parking tickets, and luggage tags, among other uses. In thermal printing, text or graphics appear as a result of a color-change induced by localized heating of the paper in a thermal printer. But, as stated in a recent report by the Washington Toxics Coalition, the problem with this is that 100 percent of the paper is covered with the imaging chemicals in a thin coating that often contain BPA as a developing agent. And since the BPA is not chemically bound to the paper, it rubs off on contact – onto skin, onto money, and much more.

What is most concerning about this new report (click here to read and here) is that the Washington Toxics Coalition found that more than half of the thermal paper receipts in the United States contain large amounts of unbound BPA, and 95 percent of the dollar bills they tested came up positive for lower, but still measurable, amounts of BPA, obviously from coming in contact with receipts.

The European Union did its own study in 2008 on BPA in thermal receipts and found that while thermal paper production is one of the smallest industrial uses of BPA in Europe, due to intensive water use and the free available chemical nature of BPA in paper coatings, recycling of thermal paper generates the largest industrial source of BPA entering wastewater treatment plants in Europe.

So, what do we do? Start by asking your supplier to provide you with BPA-free thermal paper for all your applications – shipping and container labels, point-of-sale receipts, and more. Appleton Paper, one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of thermal paper, has reportedly been using bisphenol S (BPS) as a replacement for BPA since 2006 and widely marketing its BPA-free alternatives. Yes, we know that BPS is a close chemical relative of BPA but for now, it does not have the same established level of risk and hazard attached to its use.

If customers ask about EA in plastics, or BPA in receipts, use the information in this editorial to give a balanced, but fair and open answer. Give your customers the choice not to take a receipt if you don’t yet have BPA-free paper.

And when it comes to plastics, regardless of what manufacturers may publish or advise as care instructions for their products, advise your customers to be prudent and hand-wash their bottles — even if they are listed as top-rack dishwasher safe. Don’t leave bottles lying in the hot sun, such as in the back of an SUV or on the front seat of a car. And tell your customers to be cautious about what liquids they put into plastic bottles and leave stored in them for any significant amount of time – chemicals react with chemicals to create or leach other chemicals. It is a fact of the chemical world we live in. And if your customers are really concerned about plastic, then offer them glass or stainless steel alternatives.

Doubtless there will be more reports in the months and years to come, finding new problems and chemicals for us to worry about. In the end, it all comes down to giving our consumers all of the information (not just the information you deem to be in your company’s best interests) as well as the choices necessary to allow them to make personal decisions that might have an effect on their health. Anything less is just uncaring and irresponsible.

–Michael Hodgson