Replacing Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire?
by Ronald White, 8/18/2014
With the increased focus on removing toxic chemicals from consumer products, it’s logical to assume that alternative chemicals used in these products will be substantially less dangerous to our health and the environment. Unfortunately, due to the lack of safety information for the vast majority of chemicals currently used in manufacturing, these substitutes may not be any safer than the chemicals they replace.
The Case of BPA
As detailed in a recent Scientific American article, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is a prime example of this concern. BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastic, which is used in water bottles and food containers, as well as food and beverage can liners and some paper receipts and dental sealants.
BPA acts like estrogen, disrupting hormones that regulate a variety of biological functions. Evidence from animal studies at levels similar to those found in humans finds that BPA alters how reproductive systems and brains develop and can lead to development of breast and prostate cancer later in life. People with higher levels of exposure have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as obesity. Because BPA leaches out from consumer products, a national survey found that 93 percent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies.
In response to public concerns about infant exposure to BPA from baby bottles, manufacturers of baby bottles and infant formula packaging stopped using BPA in 2012, which resulted in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) withdrawing approval for the use of the chemical in those products in 2013. However, FDA’s actions were based on the manufacturers’ decision to no longer use BPA in those products, not on a safety assessment. In contrast, Canada included BPA on its list of toxic substances in 2010, based on concerns regarding the chemical's health and environmental impacts.
Because of public pressure to eliminate BPA from consumer products, companies have been substituting a related chemical, bisphenol S (BPS), in their manufacturing processes. A recent study on zebra fish, which are frequently used to assess the potential for human developmental hazards from chemical exposures, found that both BPA and BPS negatively affect brain development in fish embryos. The results are consistent with earlier findings from a study of hyperactivity in young fish exposed to BPA and BPS during brain development, while the unexposed fish showed no such behavior. Another recent study found that BPS has toxic effects on the heart, causing irregular heartbeats in female mice similar to findings from an earlier study of BPA exposure on the heart.
EPA’s Design for the Environment Program
To provide information on potentially less toxic chemicals that can be substituted in manufacturing products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Design for the Environment (DfE) program. The program now provides companies and the public with a list of 650 “safer” chemicals.
Thanks to the program, the health problems associated with chemicals like BPS should come as no surprise to companies seeking to use it as a substitute for BPA. Results from a January 2014 DfE analysis of a variety of potential BPA substitutes in receipt paper found that BPS presented a “moderate hazard” for developmental, reproductive, neurological, and cancer effects, as well as a “high hazard” for repeated exposures. In fact, BPS presented a higher risk of damaging genes, a possible precursor to cancer and other health problems, than BPA.
Consumer products remain the major source of most people’s exposure to toxic chemicals. The BPA example above highlights the importance of understanding the potential impacts of the chemicals or materials used to replace these toxins to ensure they actually reduce health and environmental risks.
The lack of significant progress in revising the Toxic Substances Control Act, our nation’s current, ineffective approach to assessing and managing chemical risks, underscores the importance of state efforts to reduce public exposure to toxic chemicals, like those in California, Washington State, Maine, and others, as well as efforts to push retailers to require that the products they sell don’t contain toxic chemicals.
In the end, however, we must ensure that chemical substitutions reduce exposure risks on a nationwide basis – and do not just replace one problem with another. Because of this, it is essential that the EPA and FDA significantly accelerate the pace of assessing chemical hazards and providing that information to the public and industry.