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BPA: The Press Rounds Up the Usual Suspects and Gets it Wrong

By Mark L. Itzkoff

Over the past few months, articles have been published claiming possible links between bisphenol A (BPA) and a variety of human health problems including obesitythyroid changes, and male infertility.  Many of the recent stories leave consumers misinformed about possible exposure to BPA and implicate products that do not contain BPA.

For example, NBC News recently aired a report on the possible link between BPA and lower thyroid hormone levels.  During the story introduction, the backdrop images behind the news anchor were first disposable plastic water bottles, followed by a dump truck unloading its collection of post-consumer plastic for either recycling or disposal, again mainly disposable water bottles.  Consumers could easily infer that both the disposable plastic water bottles and plastic products produced using recycled, post-consumer materials are possible sources of BPA exposure.  This implication is simply incorrect.

What is BPA?

Bisphenol A (in FDA’s food additive regulations, 21 CFR 175 et seq, BPA is listed using the chemical name 4,4’-isopropylidenediphenol) is a highly reactive chemical that is primarily used as a monomer in the production of polycarbonate plastic and epoxy coatings.  During polycarbonate production and the application of epoxy coatings, BPA reacts with other monomers to form the plastic or coating.  BPA is not used in the production of other food packaging plastics, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene.

What is a “water bottle?”

Much of the misinformation regarding BPA exposure appears to be due to the use of the term “water bottle” for different products.  There are two containers that are often referred to as “water bottles”:

  • Pre-filled, single-use, disposable bottles such as the common 0.5 liter bottle; and
  • Bottles that are sold empty, intended to be filled and re-used by the consumer with water or other beverages.

Different materials are used to produce each type of water bottle.

Single-use bottles are produced from PET, which, as noted above, is a polymer that is produced without BPA.  Because there is no BPA in the container, consumers are not exposed to BPA when drinking water or other beverages packaged in PET containers.

On the other hand, reusable water bottles have been produced from a number of different materials. Prior to 2003, multi-use, refillable bottles were often produced from polycarbonate, a hard plastic that did not impart the “off-taste” sometimes associated with plastic containers.  However, following media reports of possible BPA migration from these bottles, virtually all U.S. suppliers converted to other materials, such as metal and glass.  When the media reports on possible health risks due to BPA exposure from “water bottles,” the reporters are referring to these reusable bottles made with polycarbonate which are no longer being sold.

It should be noted that polycarbonate was also used to produce baby bottles and “sippy cups.”  U.S. companies and their suppliers stopped using polycarbonate in these applications following publication of a study in 2008 reporting that polycarbonate baby bottles could release “dangerous levels” of BPA.  Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration amended its regulations and removed the earlier clearance for the use of polycarbonate resin in baby bottle and sippy cup applications.  The FDA took this action in response to a petition from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in which ACC stated that polycarbonate is no longer used to produce baby bottles and sippy cups, not as a result of any agency determination that the use of these products is unsafe.

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