AUSTIN -- Four years ago parents pressured manufacturers to remove a potentially dangerous chemical called BPA or Bisphenol-A. Now most baby bottles, sippy cups, and plastic products are BPA-free. However, new research happening in Central Texas suggests there may still be a big problem with plastics.
It’s in nearly everything we use -- baby bottles, lotion, even food is all packaged in plastic or made of plastic.
“With my kids I want it safe; I want it natural,” said Holley Kitchen, mother of two toddlers. “I want the best for them.”
Kitchen is always reading up on ways to keep her kids healthy.
“When my first one was young, I looked for BPA-free. That was what you were supposed to look for,” said Kitchen.
Little did she know those plastics may still pose a hidden danger.
"Almost all plastic products release somewhere between 20 to 40 different chemicals,” said George Bittner, Ph.D., a neurobiology professor at the University of Texas.
"We were certainly surprised,” he said.
What they found is removing BPA didn't make plastic products safer.
"In fact, some of the products we tested, you'd be better off using the BPA-containing plastics than the BPA-free plastics," Bittner said.
They found plastic wrap, plastic bags, and baby bottle components released the most chemicals.
Here's the concern: thousands of chemicals like BPA have what's called estrogenic activity. When ingested, they mimic estrogen acting like a key, turning on and off switches.
Studies show long-term exposure can lead to behavioral issues, early puberty, obesity even cancer.
"Drinking milk from a bottle that has BPA or estrogenic activity one time, that's not going to produce the adverse affect,” said Bittner. “The problem is, you're likely to drink that milk several times a day, and maybe the bottle is heated, and well, it's not just the milk from the bottle; you're being served foods that are in other plastics."
Bittner's research found 92 percent of the plastic products tested released chemicals with estrogenic activity. When those products were stressed, or put in the dishwasher, microwave, or exposed to sunlight, 95 percent released chemicals with estrogenic activity.
Plastic wrap, plastic food storage bags, and baby bottles released the most. The BPA-free products tested were even more troublesome.
"In many cases what other firms have substituted for BPA has either as much or even more estrogenic activity than BPA," Bittner found.
“I think that’s really scary,” said mother of two Jennifer Heinzke.
Her family eats healthy, and only heats up leftovers in glass. For years they've tried to buy food packaged in glass.
“I don't think we have a choice with this,” she said pointing to juice in her refrigerator, which was in a plastic container. “We want to trust that our government is doing what they need to be doing to regulate this and check all this out to make sure it’s safe.”
Chemical Industry responds
The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s largest trade association, argues Bittner's study is flawed because researchers cut up the plastics testing the chemicals on all sides instead of just looking at what would come in contact with food or liquid.
“While conflicting scientific reports sometimes may be confusing, consumers don’t need to become plastics experts to make sound decisions for their families,” said ACC Vice President of Plastics Steve Russell. “It is important to know that all plastics intended for contact with food must meet stringent FDA safety requirements before they are allowed on the market.”
The Toxic Substances Control Act
required all chemicals created beyond 1976 to be subject to review for their toxicity, but it grandfathered in 62,000 existing chemicals. Years later, government leaders admit 95 percent of the chemicals currently used haven’t been tested, only five chemicals have been banned, and thousands more enter the market every day.
What should you do?
As a result of what they found, Bittner and his team developed a way to make plastics with alternative materials that show no estrogenic activity. They call them EA-free.
They are made in Austin at a new company called PlastiPure.
The plastics cost nearly the same to make and there's more.
"They could be brought to market in months," said Mike Usey, CEO of PlastiPure.
A few products are currently being sold like Pure-bot water bottles
. However, when it comes to big name manufacturers, the process is slow.
"Their concern is if they put out demonstratively safer products they’re going to be sued for the products they’ve had before," said Usey.
So what can you do in the meantime? What the Heinzke family does.
"When the kids were babies, we made sure we put any milk, any water or formula, anything like that in glass,” said Heinzke. “We don’t ever microwave in plastic."
Researchers say limit the stress on the plastic products you do buy. Avoid exposing them to microwaves, dishwashers, and sunlight.
If possible, buy plastics without color; those color additives tended to leach more chemicals.
When possible, opt for glass or stainless steel.
Bittner’s team didn't break down the products by name, but they are working with the Centers for Environmental Health on another project that will do just that. They hope to have a checklist on specific products out sometime this spring.
More on the research
You can read more about Bittner and his team’s research here.
Find the peer review journal criticism of their study here.
You can read Bittner’s researchers response to the criticism here.
Cornell University has done a series of videos which show the problems of environmental estrogen. You can watch them here.