Harmful chemicals removed from products often replaced with something as bad or worse

The harmful, hormone-disrupting chemical BPA, or bisphenol-A, has been removed from baby bottles and other plastic products—but that doesn’t mean consumers should rest easy, according to Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In an opinion piece published December 15, 2016 in The Washington Post, he wrote that BPA may simply have been swapped for BPS, or bisphenol-S, a similar chemical thought to be even more harmful to children’s health.

This tactic—which researchers call “regrettable substitution”—has been used in the formulation of products such as pesticides, flame-retardant furniture, non-stick pans, and nail polish. The chemical replacements need only be different enough to be considered distinct by regulators. They don’t have to be proven safer.

In fact, most chemicals used commercially have not been tested for safety, Allen wrote. At its current pace, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could take decades to review the 80,000 chemicals currently on the market, Allen wrote, and there are an additional 2,000 added every year. With budget cuts to the EPA possible under the Trump administration, the process could become even slower—putting the public’s health at risk.

“Innocent until proven guilty may be the right starting point for criminal justice, but it is disastrous chemical policy,” Allen wrote. “We need to recognize regrettable substitution for what it is: repeated substitution of toxic chemicals with equally toxic chemicals in a dangerous experiment to which none of us knowingly signed on.”

Read Washington Post article: Stop playing whack-a-mole with hazardous chemicals

Learn more

Exposure to phthalates may raise risk of pregnancy loss, gestational diabetes (Harvard Chan School release)

Gymnasts exposed to flame retardants in foam safety equipment (Harvard Chan School news)

Plastics: Danger where we least expect it (Harvard Public Health magazine)