Why BPA-Free Plastic Isn’t Necessarily Safe

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Photograph by Svend Lindbaek - Styling by Renata Chaplynsky for Art-Department

You avoid Styrofoam and diligently keep plastics out of the dishwasher and the microwave. You use bisphenol A–free water bottles, because you've heard the chemical can cause cancer and other serious illnesses. You're being safe, or so you think.

Think again. It turns out that your BPA-free water bottle could be just as toxic as your old BPA-rich Nalgene.

The problem? Items that are free of BPA often contain other chemicals that behave in much the same way – leaching into foods and drinks. After being absorbed by the body, the chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen, increasing the risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and reproductive problems. And it's not just BPA. In one recent study, pthalates, a compound found in plastics, were linked to a 20 percent reduction in male fertility.

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Manufacturers' labels aren't worth much, either. In the largest and most comprehensive test of plastic products, researchers at the plastics-testing company CertiChem examined 455 products and discovered that nearly all the items, including those marketed as BPA-free, leached chemicals that mimicked estrogen. Mike Usey, CEO of CertiChem's sister company, PlastiPure, says he wouldn't call any plastic safe. "Some are just safer," he says.

In 2012, the FDA banned BPA for use in baby bottles and kids' sippy cups. The agency has since deemed the chemical safe in low doses for adults, arguing that humans absorb too little of the chemicals in plastics to cause harm.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, now market BPA-free products as being "safe" for children and adults. Eastman Chemical Co., which makes a material called Tritan that is used in numerous consumer goods, insists that its products are BPA-free and do not leach estrogen-like chemicals. Maranda Demuth, a company spokeswoman, points out that Tritan has been approved for use in food packaging by regulators in the U.S., Europe, Canada, China, and Japan. (Petro Plastics, the American Chemistry Council, and North American Plastics Alliance either did not return calls or refused to comment for this story.)

All of this, of course, raises the question: How much plastic is too much? That's almost impossible to answer – akin to asking at what point accumulated sun exposure turns into skin cancer. The other problem: "Everything is packaged in plastic," says Beth Terry, author of Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. Among those items: cheese, yogurt, meat, bread, toothpaste, lotion, beer and soda cans (lined with BPA), and much more.

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"We're doing an unplanned, intentional science experiment on ourselves," says Michael Green, executive director of the Center for Environmental Health. "Unplanned because we didn't agree to have plastics tested on us, and intentional because we say it's fine to use."

Stop Eating Plastic: A 10-Point Plan

Plastic is ubiquitous, but you can reduce your exposure. Below, some steps to take now.

When drinking:

  • Buy stainless-steel water bottles with plastic-free caps. (We like those from Klean Kanteen.)
  • Avoid water bottled in plastic. Drink tap water instead, which studies show contains fewer contaminants than the bottled stuff.
  • If you must use a plastic bottle, throw it out after several months, and never leave it in direct sunlight or hot places. Repeated use and heat lead to more leaching.

At the Market:

  • Seek out products packaged in glass bottles: milk, juice, soda, beer, spices, vegetables, and condiments like jelly, ketchup, and dressing.
  • Instead of putting produce in the store's tear-off plastic bags, bring your own reusable bags to shop with.
  • If you're getting a to-go salad or a meal from the hot buffet, opt for the paper containers over the plastics.

At home:

  • Microwave food in glass or ceramic containers.
  • Never put hot food, drinks, or soups in plastic containers or bottles.
  • Cover leftovers in tinfoil versus plastic wrap.
  • Swap your plastic water-filter pitcher for a glass version that's plastic-free, like those from Soma. Replace plastic household appliances, such as coffeemakers and blenders, with new ones made of stainless steel.

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