Are BPA-Free Plastics Just As Bad?

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Ruaridh Stewart/ZUMA Press/Corbis

As consumers search out a "BPA-free" label as a measure of a product's safety, science continues to indicate that such labels are not an indication that the product is risk-free. In the span of a week, three studies pointed out potential health hazards in various plastics. And without more precautionary testing and laws to safeguard against unknown toxins, experts say it's impossible for a consumer to buy a plastic product that is verifiably safe.

"As someone who works on this every single day, it's still hard for me to navigate the marketplace," said Lindsay Dahl, deputy director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

In one recent study, researchers were surprised to find that one of the main alternatives to BPA seems to be equally damaging -- despite its reputation is a "safe alternative." As an endocrine disruptor, BPA mimics the hormone estrogen, potentially causing a variety of health concerns. One of the unique qualities of BPA is that it only takes a small amount to produce effects.

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When researchers exposed rat cells to bisphenol S, a replacement chemical to BPA, they found that low levels of BPS acted in a similar manner.

"We didn't think would have those effects, but it's essentially the same as BPA," said Rene Vinas, one of the University of Texas researchers who conducted the BPS study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

In another study, researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small -- up to 8 parts per billion -- melamine is a known carcinogen.

Here's where things get even more complicated: There's no way to know if the receipt you just grabbed or the BPA-free water bottle you sent your kid to school with is laced with BPS. And the FDA says that it takes 2,500 parts per billion of melamine in a person's blood to pose a risk -- so does that mean it's safe to pop your toddler's favorite robot plate in the microwave?

No one can say for sure.

"While in many cases the contents of food and personal care products list ingredients, rarely do they list ingredients for containers they are in," said Cheryl Watson, co-author of the BPS study.  "Even if you try to go by the recycling label on the container, it just lists the primary plastic, and not the other ones that may be mixed in. We know BPS is found in thermal paper – but who knows what else. "