BPA substitute may be more harmful than original say Guelph researchers

Researchers at University of Guelph are warning that people buying BPA-free plastics may not be getting a product free from bisphenol — or the health concerns associated with BPA. 

Bisphenol S has similar effects as bisphenol A, and is potentially more potent

In 2010, the federal government declared bisphenol A toxic and ordered it removed from all baby products. Now, researchers warn many products feature BPA-free labels, but could contain an equally-problematic substitute: bisphenol S. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Researchers at University of Guelph are warning that people buying BPA-free plastics may not be getting a product free from bisphenol — or the health concerns associated with BPA. 

From pacifiers and baby bottles to lunch containers and water bottles, more and more companies are making the claim that their plastics are free from BPA, also known as bisphenol A. 

What they don't say is the chemical that's taken its place could be just as harmful as the original. 

In 2010, Statistics Canada reported BPA was detected in the urine of 91 per cent of Canadians between the ages of six and 79. Later that year, the Government of Canada declared BPA toxic and banned its use or sale in baby bottles. 

With BPA falling out of favour, bisphenol S is being used as a replacement, said Glen Pyle, an expert in molecular cardiology at the University of Guelph. Research dating back to 2012 shows bisphenol S was found in the urine of 81 per cent of people tested in the United States, China, India, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Bisphenol A replaced with Bisphenol S

Given its pervasiveness, Pyle's team at the University of Guelph wanted to know if it had the same negative health effects. The two compounds are related and chemically, they do the same thing. 

"Knowing the problems with BPA, they replaced it with BPS because it was able to do the same thing from a product standpoint — without knowing what it would do from a biological standpoint," said Pyle.

His testing found striking similarities, and the results were recently published in Scientific Reports. 

BPA is an endocrine disruptor, that mimics estrogen. While not cancer-causing, some cancers are estrogen-sensitive, explained Pyle. The chemical can also affect heart function.

BPS works in a very similar way, has similar effects and is potentially more potent, acting faster in Pyle's testing on mice than BPA. Mice and humans have similar endocrine and metabolic systems, he said. 

"This study raises concerns about the safety of BPS as a replacement for BPA," write its authors. 

A similar study in published in Toxicology looked at a wide array of studies done on 24 different BPA-substitutes and found almost all showed some kind of effect on hormones. 

Health Canada told CBC News in an email it has a process to evaluate the safety of new substances imported or manufactured in Canada. 

"Certain bisphenols have been identified through this process and the government is currently gathering information on alternatives to BPA, including BPS," said a spokesperson. 

Health Canada said the Identification of Risk Assessment Priorities process will be used to decide if more research or action is needed on the bisphenols in use in Canada.

Pyle said he hopes his research will encourage consumers to make informed decisions and choose glass or metal over plastics. That is the best way to see change, he said.

"Until the consumers say, 'We don't want this,' they're not really going to look for a suitable replacement." 


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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