Controversy Case Study: “BPA”


By Cassie Johnson, Green Seal Environmental Engineer II

During visits to my local grocery store and pharmacy, I find myself bombarded with chemical claims on the packaging of my favorite products.  “BPA-Free” claims have become increasingly common in recent years, especially on plastic water bottles.  What is BPA, what products might it be found in, and why are people concerned about it?  Here’s a quick overview.


“BPA” is short-hand for the chemical bisphenol-A.  BPA is a building block for making most polycarbonate plastics.  It is also used to make epoxy resins and some thermal paper coatings.

Where might I find it?

Polycarbonate Plastics

Plastics that are marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA.  Polycarbonate plastics are generally high strength, clear, and shatter-resistant. They are often used to make dishware and plastic utensils.  Some clear plastic baby bottles are also manufactured using BPA-derived polycarbonate plastic; however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned BPA-containing baby bottles and cups in 2012. Check out more detailed information from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

Food Packaging

The inside surface of metal food cans and containers is generally coated with a resin in order to prevent corrosion of the can. This epoxy resin is often made with BPA.

Cash Register Receipts

The thermal paper that is used for cash register receipts is made by placing a coating on paper that reacts when exposed to heat.  This coating is often made with BPA.

Why is there concern?

I find that issues related to potentially harmful chemicals are rarely clear cut.  Concern is often related to the unknown, in addition to the known, effects.  Often, there are conflicting viewpoints and data gaps, and consumers are left to sort through the pieces.  I find that this is the case with BPA.

According to the Globally Harmonized System for classifying chemicals, BPA is suspected of damaging fertility. However, on April 11, 2013, BPA was added to the State of California’s list of Chemicals Known to Cause Reproductive Harm, only to be removed by court order days later due to an on-going court case challenging the scientific basis for the listing. The issue is still under review.

Studies have shown that BPA is a reproductive toxin in animals. However, how relevant is animal data to humans, and is there a potential concern at the levels found in our products?

“…uncertainty in scientific knowledge should not prevent appropriate protective action when there is a threat of serious damage.”

While the jury is still out on many issues related to BPA, organizations like Green Seal are taking protective measures, such as banning BPA from plastic packaging and products in some of our standards. This is based on the idea that uncertainty in scientific knowledge should not prevent appropriate protective action when there is a threat of serious damage. In addition, in the case of BPA, safer alternatives are typically available. * See below for a list of Green Seal standards that explicitly prohibit BPA.

More to Come

I’ll continue to follow the California court case as it unfolds.

* BPA is mentioned in the following Green Seal standards.

GS-16 Reusable Bags

GS-44 Soaps, Cleansers, and Shower Products

GS-45 Plastic Resin Film Bags (in development but will most likely include restrictions)

GS-47 Stains and Finishes

GS-48 Laundry Care Products for Household Use

GS-50 Personal Care and Cosmetic Products

GS-51 Laundry Care Products for Industrial and Institutional Use

GS-52 Specialty Cleaning Products for Household Use

GS-53 Specialty Cleaning Products for Industrial and Institutional Use

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