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Is it true that even BPA-free plastic can be dangerous to my health?—Sarah Cortland
This is a timely and astute question, and the answer, in brief, is yes! So-called BPA-free plastics can release some chemicals–including, but not limited to, BPA—that have been linked to some ill health effects.
Why BPA is bad
Bisphenol-A, a component of polycarbonate (PC#7) plastic, is a suspected hormone-disrupting chemical that has been connected to diabetes, heart disease, and infant breathing problems in humans, and damage to developing nervous systems in young animals. In lab tests, BPA has been found to imitate the hormone estrogen, causing rapid proliferation of breast cancer cells.
How BPA gets into our bodies
BPA has been found to leach, or migrate, from PC baby bottles, Lexan (PC) drink bottles when they’re scratched, worn, or heated. It’s also been found to leach from so-called BPA-free microwavable plastics when they’re microwaved. A groundbreaking study in 2008 discovered that BPA mysteriously appeared in microwave-ready meals and other food and drink in supposedly BPA-free, polypropylene (PP#5) containers, when heated. No wonder BPA has been found in 93 percent of Americans’ bodies in representative population studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Most canned foods are lined with BPA-containing epoxy. And, older epoxy-lined aluminum drink bottles have also been found this year to leach BPA, even though manufacturers originally claimed they did not.
So here is my rule of thumb: never microwave food or drink in any plastic. However, it also bears remembering that BPA and other chemicals have been found to escape into the contents of unheated, room-temperature plastics.
Other estrogenically active plastic chemicals
In a study published by Environmental Health Perspectives in March of this year, hormone-disrupting, estrogenically active (EA) chemicals leached from all kinds of plastics, including those labeled "BPA-free." “In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products,” wrote researchers, who tested 450 baby bottles, water bottles, plastic food containers and wraps bought from major retailers. Seventy percent of the items released EA into solutions at room temperature, and 95 percent leached EA after stress tests simulating normal use in dishwashers and microwaves. These EA plastics include phthalates, found in flexible polyvinyl chloride (PVC#3) plastic. Happily, PVC is being steadily phased-out of food wraps and containers.
Take the plastics purge
But don't panic—just choose simple substitutes, such as lightweight, unlined stainless steel drink bottles and tempered-glass baby bottles and food containers. The good news is that, according to a small but significant study of Bay Area families published earlier this year, avoiding plastic-packaged and canned foods has been found to reduce levels of BPA and other toxic plastic chemicals by up to 66 percent in just three days. If only other diets worked so well!
Mindy Pennybacker regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.