By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Amidst the litany of adverse health effects linked to bisphenol A (BPA), local supermarkets and drugstores are making strides to rid their stores of the toxin.
Shaw's supermarkets plans to phase out BPA-coated receipts this spring at its 20 Rhode Island stores. Whole Foods has already switched to BPA alternatives. Stop & Shop also says its register tape is BPA-free at its 25 stores. CVS Caremark, however, continues to handout BPA-coated receipts at its check-out counter.
The Woonsocket-based national drugstore chain with about 65 stores in Rhode Island cites various studies, as well as a report by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) — a group funded by the chemical industry — that downplay the concern over BPA.
"While exposure to BPA from receipt paper is extremely low, we are continuing to monitor this issue since the health and safety of our customers is our top priority," CVS explained in a written response.
CVS, however, recognizes BPA as enough of a health risk to stock its shelves with "BPA-free" products, such as baby bottles and bottle liners.
The ACC, however, shows no such concern. In November, the group successfully lobbied Congress to kill a provision in a food safety bill that would have banned BPA from baby bottles.
BPA lines plastic bottles and bottle tops, aluminum soda cans, as well as steel cans of soup, vegetables and fruit. Plastic products made with BPA display a #7 recycling symbol, or contain the letters “PC” near the recycling symbol. BPA does not need to be listed under ingredients if used in food and beverage cans.
The substance is highly concentrated as a coating in cash register receipts. And handling receipts with BPA thermal paper easily transfers it to the skin, studies show. So far, none of the data has led to safety regulations here in Rhode Island. Vermont, Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Minnesota have BPA restrictions. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has offered guidance for addressing "concerns" with BPA.
"Pregnant women should avoid BPA vigilantly," said Yale University professor Hugh Taylor, an obstetrician who specializes in reproductive services, specifically endocrinology and infertility. "I always advise my patients to avoid canned goods, hard plastic containers, and any dental work until after their pregnancy."
Taylor said many industry-related studies look only at immediate birth defects in babies, while long-term effects are often ignored. And the harm BPA can cause during the life cycle is most definitely on a long-term scale. A baby exposed to BPA may seem perfectly healthy upon birth and through childhood, he explained, but in reaching adulthood they may be much more vulnerable to cancers and other health risks.
Daniel Schmidt, a researcher and professor in the department of plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, agreed that BPA, classified as an endocrine disruptor, is most harmful to women and children, contributing to behavioral and developmental disorders among other side effects.
BPA exists, he said, as a powder coating on thermal-paper receipts, making it simple to ingest and absorb through the skin. "The potential for exposure to larger amounts (of BPA), I would say, is high because it's not part of a plastic."
Schmidt is studying BPA alternatives in steel cans where it is used to prevent rust. He acknowledges that some studies may show BPA exposure in receipts and food packaging below the danger threshold. But the manmade chemical shows up in most everyone, contributing to a cocktail of toxins that increase the likelihood of illnesses.
Studies can only prove so much, Schmidt said, but he believes there is plenty evidence to support the need for a replacement for BPA, and other bisphenol derivatives.
"At the end of the day when we get alternatives that are safer, that's a good thing," Schmidt said.
"So far, finding healthier substitutes for BPA has been a challenge. A large barrier stands in the way of anyone endeavoring to come up with a replacement for an endocrine disruptor like bisphenol A," said Terrence J. Collins, professor at the Institute for Green Science Department of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. "That scientist or group must ensure to the highest scientific standards achievable that the alternative does not disrupt normal development as BPA does."