A recent study in England found traces of bisphenol A (BPA) in nearly nine out of ten teenagers. BPA, as we have talked about, is a known hormone-disrupting chemical that imitates female sex hormones and has been linked to breast and prostate cancers, as well as low sperm counts and sperm disfigurements in men. For the most part, the promotional products industry previously moved away from BPA as a plasticizer used to shape and harden plastic items, and switched to BPA-Free products. For a while, it was even used as a marketing advantage among industry-leading suppliers that had switched.
This study, conducted at the University of Exeter, set out to see if it was possible to reduce teens’ BPA levels by changing their dietary choices. What made this study different was that it was designed to be a “real-world setting”. Prior studies focused on families who likely shared sources of BPA, and used strict dietary rules that were not realistically sustainable. Some claimed a drop in BPA levels in as little as three days.
Participants in the Exeter research included 94 students between the ages of 17 and 19, and they followed a BPA-reduction diet for seven days. This included making changes you may have already tried yourself in the interest of your own safety- like switching to stainless steel and glass food containers, not microwaving food in plastic, washing your hands after handling cash register receipts, avoiding canned foods and takeout in plastic, and using a coffee filter or percolator instead of plastic coffee makers with single serving K-Cups. The students gave urine samples before and after the interventions.
So, what happened? According to Exeter, “We found no evidence in this self-administered intervention study that it was possible to moderate BPA exposure by diet in a real-world setting. Furthermore, our study participants indicated that they would be unlikely to sustain such a diet long term, due to the difficulty in identifying BPA-free foods.”
Even if you quiz your suppliers about what is or isn’t BPA-Free, you need to know that exposure can still happen through dust ingestion and skin absorption. BPA can leach into food from polycarbonate or epoxy resins after manufacturing is complete. The “leaching rate” increases with higher temperatures, and with time and use. This is why you never reuse a disposable plastic water bottle or microwave food in plastic.
But the changes you’ve made in your “real-world” plastic use for your clients and for yourself now face growing concern that BPA-Free doesn’t necessarily mean “safe,” even when you can identify the products that are manufactured with a BPA replacement from the alphabet soup of BPS, BPF, BPAF, BPZ, BPP, BHPF, and more. In a study this month published in National Geographic, an “accidental result” found BPS both leaching from plastic and presenting the same negative results as its predecessor. Geneticist Patricia Hunt of Washington State University and her team were investigating the reproductive effects of BPA in mice. Housed in BPA-free plastic cages, the test group got doses of BPA through a dropper, the control group didn't.
“Our control data just started to get really wonky,” Hunt said. The differences between it and the test group vanished, and many control mice started showing genetic issues. Though initially confused, the team discovered that some of the plastic caging was damaged and was leaching bisphenol S (BPS).
Twenty years ago, Hunt had the same issue with BPA in polycarbonate mouse cages. Now her study of the effects of several BPA alternatives finds history repeating itself with the latest accidental findings. Replacements for BPA impact reproduction in mice in much the same way BPA did back then.
What can you do to protect yourself and your clients from the dangers of both BPA and the “BPA-Free” replacements? That answer, unfortunately, is not exactly clear. Remember, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only officially bans BPA from use in baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging—not exactly mainstream promo products. This statement is published on the FDA website: "Studies pursued by FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) have shown no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure," so it’s pretty clear where they stand.
Critics of the FDA’s conservative position on the dangers of BPA point out that many of the methods of testing for risks are outdated. This latest study from Washington State adds to the mounting evidence that suggests consumers aren’t off the hook simply by buying BPA-free plastic. The results show that common BPA replacements—BPS, BPF, BPAF and diphenyl sulphone—can interfere with what researcher Patricia Hunt characterizes as “the very, very, very, very earliest part of making eggs and sperm. They look a lot like BPA,” says Hunt, “it stands to reason that they're going to behave a lot like BPA.”
Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. You can find him volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, traveling the world with his lovely wife, or enjoying a cigar at his favorite local cigar shop. Connect with Jeff on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram, or reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.