What Does BPA-Free Mean?

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Look around you. How much plastic do you see? What are you reading this article on? Does it contain plastic? What were the ingredients of your last meal packaged in? What about the pen you wrote your last to-do list with? The steering wheel of your car? Your lotion bottle? Plastic is everywhere! If you are like many people lately, you may be questioning how safe plastics are. We've heard a lot about BPA and BPA-free products, but what are the real concerns?

BPA's Long History and Uses

Bisphenol A (BPA), was first created all the way back in 1891 by Aleksandr Dianin, a chemist from Russia, reports Encyclopedia Britannica. Scientists began using it in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen, and even then there were concerns about its carcinogenic properties. In the 1950s, scientists used BPA to create a clear, hard resin. From that point on, BPA was used widely in plastics, including many reusable plastic water bottles, baby bottles, food containers, and safety goggles, as well as in non-plastic items such as receipts and the lining of food cans. Plastic made with BPA is especially clear, tough and heat resistant. As such, BPA is even used in dental sealants, according to the American Dental Association.

Plastic baby bottle filled with milk on the carpet and mother playing with baby in background

Is BPA Safe?

So, why is there so much worry and controversy about this compound? Human exposure to BPA most often comes from food or beverages stored in containers made with BPA. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, it's known to readily leach out of these plastic products, especially when heated. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) notes that BPA can be found in the urine of nearly all Americans (approximately 93 percent) over the age of five.

You've likely been exposed to BPA in your lifetime, but is the substance safe? There's still no clear verdict on the safeness of the plastic hardener since governmental and scientific groups come to conflicting conclusions, and studies seem to show different findings.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that the low doses of BPA ingested by the general public are not a health risk. According to the American Chemistry Council, a federal research program assessing the long-term risks of BPA exposure found that the substance is eliminated from the body quickly and causes no negative health effects. Despite these findings, and due to consumer concerns, the FDA's regulations do not allow BPA in baby bottles or sippy cups.

Other studies and organizations challenge the conclusion that BPA is entirely safe. A review published in Advanced Science linked BPA to breast cancer, noting that evidence supports the classification of BPA as a carcinogen. BPA is also known to mimic estrogen (remember how it was used as an estrogen replacement in the '30s?), meaning it may contribute to prostate cancer as well as disrupt thyroid hormone receptors, according to a study in the journal Medicine. A study published in Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada concluded that BPA exposure may also be linked to obesity. These differing opinions make many people leery of using plastics containing BPA in general and leave them searching for BPA-free products.

Woman sitting on a read and white checked picnic planket with a plastic water bottle and a backpack

BPA-Free Alternatives

Learning that there are products made without BPA might seem like great news after learning about the potential health concerns. However, this labeling often only means that a different variety of the compound has been used, such as bisphenol S (BPS) or bisphenol F (BPF), reports another study published in EHP. Because these compounds are structurally similar to BPA, they exhibit the same hormonal effects. Note that a BPA-free label may also mean that the product contains no variation of these compounds, but it can be hard to tell for certain, especially when making a quick decision at the store.

Keep in mind that, according to the EHP study, BPA, BPS, and BPF have all been detected virtually everywhere: in dust within our homes, food, soil, and even surface water. These compounds, and plastic in general, can be difficult to avoid entirely. The most important thing is for you to choose the products that work for you and your family. Make swaps where you can, such as buying fewer canned foods and not heating food in plastic but in ceramic or glass instead. You can look for plastic BPA-free items in the same sections of the store that you normally would search for any item, and you can usually find canned goods and water bottles that are labeled "BPA-free" in your average big box store.

Tips to Avoid Plastics

Reducing your plastic usage at home can help if you want to avoid exposure to BPA and its variations—plus, minimizing plastic use offers many environmental benefits. Using less plastic is a better choice for the Earth because all plastics, those containing BPA or not, are made from oil. Mining for oil degrades wildlife habitats and negatively impacts water quality, especially if an oil spill occurs, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

I've always been a proponent of glass and stainless steel which are known to not leach anything into their contents. Everyone in our family has a stainless steel water bottle, and we're also big fans of glass containers for corralling lunches and leftovers. We don't use any plastic tableware either, and we also say no to single-use plastics as much as possible. My advice: Do what you can! Don't make yourself crazy, and choose the battles you feel most passionate about.

What are your concerns about plastic? What plastic alternatives do you use at home—and also, what do you just let go of? Let us know on Twitter!

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Being more informed about compounds found in products you purchase—BPA being one in a host of thousands—can help you make an educated decision about how you feed, clothe, and care for your family. Every family has different needs, but being in the know helps you make the best decision you can about the products you use!