Update: A response from Eastman Chemical Company, with whom Core77 has had a working relationship in the past, has been appended to the entry. Read it below.
Trouble—perhaps big trouble—in the world of plastics.
It looks like the widespread discontinuation of products containing bisphenol-A (BPA) may have precipitated the adoption of another BPA-like and perhaps equally dangerous alternative. The question now on peoples' minds is, "Are any plastics safe?"
Since 2010, the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging. The danger of BPA is that it mimics the hormone estrogen. And while we all have some level of estrogen in our bodies, too much of it especially during pregnancy or infancy can cause problems later on. It has been associated with breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. BPA is still widely used in the lining of cans and in many water bottles.
Since the 2010 ban, there has been a surge of products marketed as "BPA-free." However, it turns out that the chemicals used to replace BPA were never tested by a regulatory body. And according to a recent investigative report by Mother Jones' Mariah Blake, many of these plastics exhibit estrogen-like properties and could have similar negative effects on ones' health.
Blake's investigation focuses on Eastman Chemical, a $7 billion company that produces Tritan, a copolyester material that is marketed as BPA-free, as well as free of any estrogenic (i.e. estrogen-like) activity. Apparently Eastman used a select group of labs and chemists to prove their assurances. Specifically, the labs used a certain type of rat that is effectively immune to the effects of high estrogen-like hormones, so according to Blake, of course they never found a negative impact from Tritan. Blake told Amy Goodman in an interview on Democracy Now that it's shockingly "easy... for the industry to bias that safety testing in their favor."
Just over a decade ago, George Bittner, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, received a National Institute of Health grant to launch a private lab called CertiChem, where he and his team test products for estrogenic activity. In 2011, he tested 455 commercial products, several of which were made with Tritan, and proved that nearly all had estrogenic activity. His results are published in Environmental Health Perspectives an NIH journal. The highest association with estrogenic activity came from a corn-based plastic that is marketed as biodegradable, which reportedly is often found at Whole Foods and in many health food stores; it is also highly associated with the popular sealer Saran Wrap. The main factor that increases the leaching of harmful hormone-like chemicals is heat—think washing with hot water, microwaving or leaving a container in a car on a hot day.
Apparently hundreds of companies, including Nalgene, Evenflo and Rubbermaid, sell products made with Tritan. Although such brands may be forgiven because Eastman gave them the same sell—that their products were safe from estrogenic activity.
Designers should heed Blake's estimate that there are about 80,000 chemicals in current circulation in the U.S. and only a small fraction of them have been tested for safety. In our system, products are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise in the market. Amazingly, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, it is totally acceptable to move into high production of a new material without disclosing its chemical ingredients.
Below is the table of plastic resin codes. Essentially each number refers to an official categorization of all plastics available to the consumer. Next time you hold a plastic container flip it over and you'll see a number—this informs you of what material the container is made of. Beware of number seven: This category is known as "other" and is a catch-all for polycarbonate which includes BPA. Not only might there be chemical leaching from such #7 plastics, they are neither reusable nor recyclable.
Word to those who care about public health in their design: Go to your source, demand information on the material or move on and find another. Until the FDA and EPA change the rules, it's anyone's guess as to how safe is safe.
March 18: Eastman Chemical Company, with whom Core77 has had a working relationship in the past, has offered their response for our readers' consideration.
To ensure the safety of Tritan, Eastman used testing methods regarded as "gold standards" by the scientific community. In fact, Eastman has gone above and beyond government and industry testing requirements. Accredited universities and Independent third-party labs tested Tritan and have proven that it is free of estrogenic activity.
This rigorous testing has been reviewed independently and approved by regulatory agencies around the world and has resulted in Tritan receiving health and food administration approval cleared for use in many food contact applications by:
- Health Canada
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- European Food Safety Authority and European Commission
- China's Ministry of Health
- Japan Hygienic Olefin and Styrene Plastics Association
To learn more about these testing methods and results, visit Tritan Safety - Get the Facts.
Statements that all plastics display estrogenic activity are simply not true. Eastman Tritan does not display estrogenic activity, as supported by the science and testing presented on our Safety Testing page and further detailed in a downloadable white paper [PDF].
PlastiPure and CertiChem used a single, non-definitive screening test called the MCF-7 test. It is widely accepted and acknowledged that this test is usually considered an initial screening test and has not been validated by the National Toxicology Program's Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use in its Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program for the purpose of identifying substances with estrogenic activity (EA).
Mariah Blake's statement [in an article referenced in the original post] is false: Eastman has not lied to its customers about Tritan. Eastman has been and will continue to be honest with its customers. The testimony that Mariah Blake has sourced to prove that Eastman lied to its customers about whether or not Tritan displays estrogenic activity has been taken out of context.
Eastman filed a lawsuit against PlastiPure and its sister company CertiChem to prevent these companies from publicizing false and misleading information about Tritan that were based on poor science and used to promote their businesses and not to further a scientific debate as they claimed. These two companies set out to financially benefit from consumer concern by providing false and misleading information. In fact, Dr. Bittner and his colleagues testified at the trial last July that they had no evidence to support a statement that Tritan could be harmful to humans or animals. A jury was convinced by both scientific evidence and expert testimony and Eastman won the case, which resulted in the companies being ordered to stop making additional misrepresentations about Tritan.
The lawsuit was never intended to stop the companies, or any other organization, from publishing test results or to squelch scientific discussion.
When anyone chooses a product made with Eastman Tritan, they need to know that Eastman remains confident in its testing and the safety of our products.
– Maranda Demuth, Eastman Chemical Company, Corporate Communications