Beyond BPA: Court Battle Reveals A Shift In Debate Over Plastic Safety

Feb 16, 2015
Originally published on February 17, 2015 4:56 pm

BPA-free isn't good enough anymore if you're trying to sell plastic sippy cups, water bottles and food containers.

The new standard may be "EA-free," which means free of not only BPA, short for bisphenol A, but also free of other chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen.

At least that's the suggestion of a recent legal battle between a chemical company and an academic scientist with business interests in the plastics industry. The proceedings offer a glimpse of the struggle for the hearts and minds of consumers concerned about the safety of plastics.

The roots of the legal conflict go back to 2002, when Eastman Chemical began developing a new plastic called Tritan. It was designed to be "a tough, clear, high-temperature, chemically resistant and also dishwasher-resistant product," says Chris Killian, a vice president for specialty products at Eastman.

Tritan had another desirable quality: Unlike many plastics, it didn't contain BPA, a chemical that, in large doses, caused hormone-related health problems in animals.

The absence of BPA in Tritan was a fortunate accident, Killian says, one that gave the new plastic a big boost when Eastman began selling it in 2007.

By then, many consumers were avoiding products made with BPA. And the FDA was still trying to decide whether these products posed any health risk. The uncertainty surrounding BPA gave Tritan a big boost, Killian says.

"We certainly became aware of the growing interest from both the consumers and from some of our customers with respect to having a BPA-free alternative," he says. "But none of us could have predicted the magnitude of that interest."

Tritan became a hit. And that's when a scientist and businessman named George Bittner entered the picture.

Bittner is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. Long before Tritan came along, he had concluded that BPA wasn't the only chemical in plastics that could act like estrogen.

"There are a couple of hundred or maybe a couple thousand other chemicals that are used to make some kinds of plastics that are almost certainly as much a problem as BPA," Bittner says.

Bittner believed this so strongly that he founded PlastiPure, a company involved in making plastics without estrogenic chemicals, and CertiChem, a company that tests plastics for what's known as estrogenic activity. Over the years, Bittner would put millions of dollars into these ventures.

As he worked to get his companies going, Bittner — and some other scientists — began preaching the gospel that consumers shouldn't settle for products that were merely free of BPA. They should demand products that were free of any chemical with estrogenic activity.

By the time Tritan arrived in 2007, people were starting to listen. "This trend, if you will, or this consumer preference began to evolve and grow in the same way BPA did," Killian says.

In response, Eastman added "EA-free" to Tritan's resume. There was just one problem. PlastiPure had begun distributing marketing materials saying that Tritan products were not free of estrogenic activity under certain conditions.

So, in 2012, Eastman sued PlastiPure. Each side trotted out experts and studies backing its position. They argued at length about which tests should be used to establish whether a product had estrogenic activity.

In 2013, a federal jury sided with Eastman and the court told PlastiPure and CertiChem to change their marketing tactics. In December 2014, an appeals court upheld that ruling.

As a result, Bittner's companies have changed their tactics a bit, says Mike Usey, the CEO of PlastiPure. "We don't talk about Tritan, or Eastman, in a commercial context concerning the testing results that we have," he says. "But that doesn't limit our discussing our research in a scientific context."

That means Bittner and his companies are getting their message out by publishing scientific papers about estrogenic plastics that specifically mention Tritan and products made with it.

The tactic seems to be effective, Bittner says. "I think people are recognizing that it's not the courts that determine scientific questions," he says.

So the struggle for consumers' hearts, minds and wallets goes on. Eastman reports that sales of Tritan continue to grow. PlastiPure has announced plans for a new line of baby bottles that meet its own definition of EA-free.

Meanwhile, the FDA has reached a conclusion about BPA, the chemical that first got consumers worried about plastics that could act like hormones. Late in 2014, the agency issued a statement reiterating its position that products made with BPA are safe.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An update on a long-standing controversy over chemicals found in some plastics. These chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen and a lot of people don't want them in their water bottles or food containers. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a legal battle involving a new plastic marketed as hormone-free.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: This battle involves a chemical company and a science professor who is also a businessman, but it's part of a much larger struggle for the hearts and minds of consumers worried about the safety of plastics. The chemical company is Eastman Chemical. In 2002, Eastman began developing a new plastic called Tritan. Chris Killian, a vice president for specialty products, says it was designed to be...

CHRIS KILLIAN: A tough, clear, chemically resistant and also dishwasher-resistant product.

HAMILTON: And Tritan had another desirable quality. Unlike many plastics, it did not contain BPA, a chemical that acts like a weak version of the hormone estrogen. BPA was beginning to attract attention back then because animal studies suggested that large doses could cause health problems. Killian says the absence of BPA in Tritan was an accident.

KILLIAN: It was not our original intent to design a BPA-free resin.

HAMILTON: But they did, and that became really important when Tritan came to market in 2007. By then, many consumers were avoiding products made with BPA, and the FDA hadn't taken a position; it was still evaluating the safety of these products. Killian says the uncertainty surrounding BPA gave Tritan a big boost.

KILLIAN: We certainly became aware of the growing interest with respect to having a BPA-free alternative, but none of us could have predicted the magnitude of that interest.

HAMILTON: Tritan became an immediate hit. Enter the businessman professor, George Bittner. Bittner is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. He also started his own plastics company. In both roles, Bittner is known as a scrappy, tireless fighter. And long before Tritan came along, Bittner had concluded that BPA wasn't the only chemical in plastics that could act like estrogen.

GEORGE BITTNER: There's a couple of hundred or maybe a couple thousand other chemicals that are used to make some kinds of plastics that are almost certainly as much a problem as BPA.

HAMILTON: Bittner believed this so strongly that he founded PlastiPure, a company that promised to make plastics without estrogenic chemicals. Over the years, Bittner would put millions into the venture. As he worked to get his company launched, Bittner and some other scientists began preaching the gospel that consumers shouldn't settle for products that were merely BPA-free. They should demand products that were EA-free, devoid of any estrogenic activity. And by the time Tritan arrived in 2007, people were starting to listen. Eastman's Chris Killian says he was concerned.

KILLIAN: This consumer preference began to evolve and grow in the same way BPA did.

HAMILTON: Eastman responded by adding EA-free to Tritan's resume. There was just one problem. PlastiPure was saying in its marketing materials that Tritan products were not free of estrogenic activity under certain conditions. In 2012, Eastman sued PlastiPure. During the trial, each side trotted out experts and studies backing its position. In 2013, a federal jury sided with Eastman. PlastiPure and a sister company would have to change their marketing tactics. A few weeks ago, an appeals court upheld that ruling. Mike Usey, the CEO of PlastiPure, says he and Bittner have changed their behavior a bit.

MIKE USEY: We don't talk about Tritan or Eastman in a commercial context concerning the testing results that we have, but that doesn't limit our discussing our research in a scientific context.

HAMILTON: Usey says the company also has been publishing new scientific papers that specifically mention Tritan.

USEY: We've started to release the names of manufacturers and also actual product names, but we're doing it through peer-reviewed publications.

HAMILTON: George Bittner says that despite the loss in court, his message is still getting through.

BITTNER: People are recognizing that it's not the courts that determine scientific questions.

HAMILTON: So the struggle for the hearts and minds of consumers goes on. Eastman is still marketing Tritan as EA-free and sales are growing. PlastiPure is gearing up to sell a line of baby bottles that meets its own definition of EA-free, and the FDA continues to evaluate products made with a range of chemicals that have estrogenic activity. But the agency has taken a position on BPA, the chemical that started this whole controversy. Late last year, the FDA issued its strongest statement yet, saying that products made with BPA are safe. And early this year, the European Food Safety Authority said pretty much the same thing. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.