Friday, March 7, 2014

Someday, we will learn (is any plastic safe?)

Several years ago the world went a little crazy with the scare that BPA (Bisphenol-a) was leaching out  of our water bottles and into our bodies. At the time that this occurred I worked for a major outdoor retailer, and it was my job to train staff in all manner of products. Because I was already set up as a trainer, It fell to me to educate staff in every aspect of the BPA scare and what it meant to people active in the outdoors. I got access to a tremendous amount of information. From the bottle companies. From the FDA, and even from the chemists who had done the tests on the bottles. I literally read the reports generated by the labs, and I while I generally only understood the overview sections, it was fascinating.

The effects of BPA were originally listed as pretty broad, but they finally settled on something similar to this.

Bisphenol-a is an endocrine disruptor - a substance which interferes with the production, secretion, transport, action, function and elimination of natural hormones. BPA can imitate our body's own hormones in a way that could be hazardous for health. Babies and young children are said to be especially sensitive to the effects of BPA.

I learned more about BPA than I ever wanted to learn, and I learned more mis-information from people than I thought was possible.

For example, I learned that for a product to have BPA in it, it has to be both hard, and transparent polycarbonate plastic. The softer white water bottles don't have - and never had - BPA. And Hard non-transparent bottles and other items like plates or mugs didn't have BPA.

I learned that the amount of BPA that leaches out of your plastic water bottle is microscopically small at room temperature. But if you put boiling water in a bottle the amount leached from the plastic increased dramatically. So don't sterilize your bottle - which is recommended for baby bottles - and don't put your bottle in the dishwasher - which you should never do anyway because they aren't dishwasher safe.

A 7 in a recycle triangle on the bottom of the container doesn't mean it contains BPA, it means it may contain BPA as there are several #7 plastics that have no BPA.

I also learned that as adults we shouldn't be worried about BPA in bottles, because there is so little leaching out (unless we are drinking tea or coffee out of it) but there is still plenty to be worried about. They still use BPA to line food cans, and the more acidic the food is, the more BPA is leached out of the liner. I stopped buying canned tomatoes. The thing you should really be worried about is this.... Register receipts. Register receipts have a massive amount of BPA on them, and unlike a bottle it is 'unbonded' BPA. In a water bottle it is bonded to the plastic and needs something to remove it and allow it to leach - like heat, or something acidic. Which means when you get handed a register receipt you are being handed a large amount of unbonded BPA which comes off on your hands and then ends up getting ingested, because our hands end up touching our faces and lips. I rarely take a receipt from someone.

And finally, I suspected that the entire BPA scare was started by Coca-Cola - putting on my tinfoil paddling hat now - because Nalgene had run an AD campaign saying "use a multi use bottle, because it is better for you and the environment than using a one time use bottle - or using a one time use water bottle multiple times, which is really not a good idea. And here is why!" Coke was concerned about a loss of revenue in the lucrative water market, and took it out on Nalgene and camelbak. I don't know if it is true, but it is a great story.

Our culture of fear - as I have called it before - that absolutely needs something to be afraid of and something to do about it, jumped all over this. People were panicked about their water bottles, but they didn't care about their food containers, or their register receipts.

So I trained staff in what they needed to know about BPA. We pulled all BPA plastic from our store, and eventually replaced it with non-BPA Tritan plastic. Then we saw "BPA FREE" stickers appear on everything with any kind of plastic in it, confusing people more. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of BPA plastic bottles were recalled, with most going in landfills.

Then we saw a small explosion in non-plastic water bottles. Both stainless steel, and glass bottles starting arriving, they were expensive, heavy, and breakable.

It took about a year for the outdoor world to stabilize, but finally we had safe bottles to drink from again, and most of them were still plastic. Some people went to the new plastics. Some went with glass or metal. Some went back to the older HDPE bottles. These people I felt bad for, because I remembered that the reason we switched to polycarbonate bottles was that something was leaching out of the HDPE bottles.

Two days ago, I got an email with a link it. My only thought was, Here we go again:

This video, which isn't particularly well done. Claims - no, I am going to say that it says, because I absolutely believe it - That all plastic has the same leaching properties as BPA laden polycarbonate. That they all have 'estrogenic' effects. That the tritan plastic that replaced the unsafe plastic was never tested by the FDA - in fact most things aren't tested by the FDA.

I think we are a year to 18 months away - depending on how much traction this gets - from another plastic purge. I think this time we will see no recovery from the plastic bottle makers unless they switch to glass or stainless steel.

I think that plastic is great for paddling in, but I don't think we should be eating from it. I have also talked before about how upsetting it is for plastic to get used once - as in a plastic fork, or food container - and then get thrown away. It has a usable life of under ten minutes, from the moment they hand you your food, to the moment you throw away the container. Then it spends decades decomposing. I try to use very little plastic, but if the changes occur the way I think they will, the work will be done for me. I don't think it will be available, at least not in this country. I suspect the bottle makers will shift their marketing to the third world, the way they did with tobacco.

Perhaps in a year I won't be the only one drinking out of one of these.

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