Ask G

Ask us: Is that BPA?

Tanya Ha answers your questions about decoding safe plastics by numbers.

Most of us are aware of BPA (Bisphenol-A) and other endocrine disruptors, but if we stick to BPA-free plastics are we consuming a cocktail of other chemicals? While I am drinking my ‘healthier’ purified water from a jug that does not have any recycling number on the bottom but the ‘food safe’ symbol, is this telling me that it does not contain BPA or other nasties?
– Jenny, NSW.

BPA

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Here we have two different labelling programs with two different purposes. The plastic identification code – which is the recycling symbol with a number in the middle – was developed to help recyclers sort the different plastic types from each other, addressing an industry challenge, rather than a public health challenge.

In contrast, the ’food safe’ symbol was developed to reassure consumers that the material used in a product is safe for food contact. This program is concerned with public health and is used in North America, Europe and parts of Asia.

Broadly, the food safe symbol provides assurance that the material bearing it is free from toxins it may have come into contact with during the manufacturing process and that the material itself won’t become a source of unhealthy contaminants, such as BPA and phthalates. The program sets limits for the amount of chemical migration per unit of surface area according to the type of material, the temperature it may reasonably be exposed to and the pH of the food stored in it (this can influence leaching). Products with the food safe logo are either BPA-free or have quantities below the program’s limits.

Incidentally, Brita had its water filter jugs and drink bottles tested by the US-based National Sanitation Foundation, which found no evidence of leaching of key chemicals of concern. Its products do not contain BPA. Just remember to change the filter cartridge as recommended.

Plastics have widely varying properties. Some are more porous than others; some are more flexible. We want some to be durable and others to be biodegradable. They are safest when ‘fit for purpose’, hence food safety authorities say it’s safe to reuse plastic containers that are intended for reuse. Tupperware containers are made for reuse; takeaway containers and the standard polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles that soft drinks and bottled water are sold in are not.

Always use plastics as recommended: don’t use put them in the microwave or dishwasher if they’re not ‘microwave safe’ or ‘dishwasher safe’. Plastics are more likely to leach chemicals or harbour bacteria if not used correctly or if used and reused for longer than intended.

Also keep in mind that fats in foods tend to absorb endocrine disruptors, so avoid storing or microwaving fatty foods in plastic containers or wrap. Where possible, store food in glass, ceramic or Pyrex containers. Never store food or drink in lead crystalware.

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Tanya Ha is an expert environmentalist and author. To ask a question for her next column, email askg@gmagazine.com.au