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If you've shopped for water bottles or Sippy cup recently, you've probably seen this label: BPA-free. BPA is a chemical that can act like the hormone estrogen. Well, now there's a new claim to consider, EA-free. It's supposed to mean free of any chemicals with estrogen-like activity.
NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a legal battle over whose plastics consumers should trust.
JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: Environmental groups and the government still disagree about whether any of these estrogen-like chemicals pose a health risk. But consumers have made it clear: they want Sippy cups and water bottles made of plastics they consider safe. Enter Eastman Chemical. In 2007, it began marketing a tough new safe plastic called Tritan.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The houseware made of Tritan survives to face another toddler.
HAMIILTON: Tritan is clear, like polycarbonate plastics. But unlike those products it contains no BPA.
Lucian Boldea, a vice president at Eastman, says that has given Tritan a marketing edge.
LUCIAN BOLDEA: Concern around BPA began to arise, so we were able to make the statement that our product is not made with BPA and would release data to support that fact.
HAMIILTON: Things are going well for Tritan. Then 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 two companies involved in the legal battle with Eastman. He's also a researcher with the University of Texas, Austin. One of his companies is called CertiChem. It tests products for chemicals that act like estrogen. The other is PlastiPure, which helps manufacturers make EA-free plastic products. Bittner's study touched off the battle with Eastman because it found problems with a wide range of BPA-free products, including Tritan.
GEORGE BITTNER: We found that most other plastic products also released chemicals having estrogenic activity.
HAMIILTON: Bittner says even products that had no estrogenic activity when they came off the shelf changed under certain conditions.
BITTNER: Boiling, microwaving, dishwashing or exposing to sunlight.
HAMIILTON: Eastman responded by declaring that Tritan products are not only BPA-free, but EA-free. And it filed a suit against CertiChem and PlastiPure. Eastman's Lucian Boldea says Bittner's study subjected products to extreme conditions not found in the home. And he says the study used a screening test that sometimes indicates estrogenic activity even when there is none.
BOLDEA: So to misrepresent a screening test as conclusive evidence is what we have the issue with.
HAMIILTON: Bittner, of CertiChem, says other tests confirmed the finding. He also says Eastman is just trying to squelch scientific evidence that makes its products look bad.
From Eastman's point of view, Boldea says PlastiPure and CertiChem both have an unhealthy incentive to find fault with his company's products.
BOLDEA: What we're dealing with here is two companies that are set out to financially benefit from a consumer concern by providing false and misleading information.
HAMIILTON: What's interesting about the legal battle 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 arguing that BPA was safe. Now many of those companies have voluntarily remove BPA from products and seemed to be going even further, embracing the idea that consumers want plastics free of any chemical that acts like estrogen.
Mike Usey, the CEO of PlastiPure, says that's why he sees an upside to Eastman's suit against his company.
MIKE USEY: The recent lawsuit is validation that consumers do want safer products. They don't want slogans that consumers, I think, are recognizing that the issue goes beyond BPA.
HAMIILTON: And it could go way beyond BPA. Many endocrinologists think it's time to identify chemicals that act on any of the body's hormone systems. Tom Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, says it doesn't make sense to focus only on chemicals that act like estrogen.
TOM ZOELLER: 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 took that seriously.
HAMIILTON: Regulators are discussing ways to identify a broad range of so-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals. But even as agencies like the FDA look to new potential threats, they still haven't reached a conclusion about some of the old ones - not even BPA.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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