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CamelBak-brand water bottles on display at an outdoor supply store in Arcadia, Calif., in 2008. The company removed BPA from the plastic in its bottles.
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In 2007, Eastman Chemical began marketing a tough new BPA-free plastic called Tritan. Business was good, says Lucian Boldea, a vice president at Eastman.
"We were able to make the statement that our product is not made with BPA and would release data to consumers to support that fact," he says.
BPA, short for bisphenol A, is a chemical that can act like the hormone estrogen. While environmental groups and the government still disagree about whether BPA or any estrogen-like chemicals pose a health risk, consumers are clear that they want Sippy cups and water bottles made of plastics they consider safe.
About a year ago, a scientist named George Bittner published a study of more than 400 plastic products, including some made with Tritan. Bittner is the founder of PlastiPure and CertiChem, which tests products for chemicals that act like estrogen. PlastiPure helps manufacturers make EA-free plastic products — plastics free of any chemical with estrogen-like activity.
Bittner's study found problems with a wide range of BPA-free products, including Tritan.
"We found that most other plastic products also released chemicals having estrogenic activity," Bittner explains. He says even products that had no estrogenic activity when they came off the shelf changed under certain conditions, "such as boiling, microwaving, dishwashing or exposing to sunlight."
Eastman responded to the study by declaring that Tritan products are not only BPA-free but EA-free, and it filed a lawsuit against CertiChem and PlastiPure.
Eastman's Boldea says Bittner's study subjected products to extreme conditions not found in the home. Furthermore, he says, there's a conflict of interest with Bittner's ownership of both companies.
But Bittner says other tests confirmed the finding, and that Eastman is just trying to squelch scientific evidence that makes its products look bad.
What's interesting about the legal battle, though, is that Eastman, a major chemical company, thinks estrogen activity is important enough to fight over.
That's a big change. Just a few years ago, chemical companies, including Eastman, were still arguing that BPA was safe.
Now, many of those companies have voluntarily removed BPA from products and seem to be going even further — embracing the idea that consumers want completely EA-free plastics.
Mike Usey, the CEO of PlastiPure, says that's why he sees an upside to Eastman's suit against his company.
"It's is a validation that there is a market there," Usey says. "Consumers do want safer products. They don't want slogans."
Many endocrinologists think it's time to identify chemicals that act on any of the body's hormone systems. Biologist Tom Zoeller at the University of Massachusetts says it doesn't make sense to focus only on chemicals that act like estrogen.
"To the extent that legislators or regulatory bodies might actually think that if we take care of estrogen we're really OK — I'd be surprised if anybody actually took that seriously," he says.
Regulators are discussing ways to identify a broad range of so-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But even as agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration look to new potential threats, they still haven't reached a conclusion about some old ones — not even BPA.