Is 'BPA free' truly harm free?: Regrettable alternatives and chemical groups

Dr Ehi Idahosa-Taylor is an expert in environmental toxicology

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We are all exposed to chemicals daily. As consumers, we may try to limit exposure to certain chemicals that are known to have hazardous properties to protect our health or the wider environment.

Information about certain chemicals is more widely publicised than others. A notable example is Bisphenol A (BPA). When choosing to buy a new water bottle for example, consumers may be influenced to choose a product that claims to be "BPA free". But what does this mean?

Is 'BPA free' truly harm free?

Bisphenol A is an organic compound that is usually combined with other chemicals to make hard durable plastic products. The harmful effect of BPA is well documented and it is known to be an endocrine disruptor meaning that it can alter the functions of the endocrine system in various organisms and their descendants or subpopulations. BPA is also associated with causing harmful effects on human reproductive systems, immunity and other health conditions.

Whilst the average consumer may not be aware of all the harmful effects associated with BPA, they may be informed enough to try to avoid these products where possible. For such informed consumers, whist they would like to assume that these “BPA free” products have been replaced by safer alternative chemicals, the reality may not be the case.

In some instances, plastic products like water bottles are being made with other derivatives from the Bisphenol family of compound that have similar or equally harmful impacts to the health or the environment.

A harmonised approach to prevent ‘regrettable alternatives’

One way to address this problem is to consider the risks associated with a whole family of compounds that are grouped based on their structural similarity as an alternative to assessing chemicals on an individual basis.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) are now adopting a group risk assessment approach to their consideration of the effects associated with groups of structurally similar compounds. They have recently published their findings on the group of 148 Bisphenol compounds that led to their recommendation to restrict more than 30 of the Bisphenol compounds.

From a chemical regulatory standpoint, this approach is significant because it adopts a proactive and harmonised approach to assessing the risks and ultimately regulating these chemicals to ensure that, like in the case of BPA, plastic products aren't being replaced by what ECHA refers to as "regrettable alternatives".

Mitigating toxicological risks to water quality

As part of WRc’s ongoing collaboration with UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR), the NCET team continue to revise and draft chemical toxicology datasheets (a comprehensive compilation of toxicological information relating to specific chemicals or groups of chemicals) - a tool developed to support the water industry in their management of human and environmental risks associated with chemical exposures to ensure the provision of good water quality.

In collaboration with UKWIR, the NCET team are increasing efforts to adopt a similar grouping approach to our toxicology datasheets where possible. For group datasheets, a concerted effort is being placed on grouping chemicals based on their structural similarity. In cases where information is limited for a particular chemical, the water industry can draw on information available from other chemicals collated within that group datasheet of compounds, enabling water scientists to make better informed decisions to manage the risks associated with chemical incidents that may occur within the water industry.

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

Toxicology advisory services

WRc's team at NCET are the UK's leading independent advisors on the risks posed to human health and to the environment by chemicals, micro-organisms and other naturally occurring and man-made substances.

Our toxicologists provide a holistic and complete range of services to support the water industry in their management of risks associated with chemical exposures to ensure the provision of good water quality.

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Dr Ehi Idahosa-Taylor

Director of Toxicology (NCET)

Ehi leads WRc's toxicology team (NCET) to undertake research into chemical and environmental hazards to underpin policy and carries out assessments to determine the potential chemical or environmental risks associated with exposures to chemicals, with particular emphasis on supporting the UK water industry.