• 12.12.12

A Tool To Let Companies Design Products Without Harmful Chemicals

We all know BPA is bad, but so are a lot of other chemicals we don’t know too much about. A new service lets companies find out if what they’re selling us might end up being the next BPA–so they can save money before they have to recall everything.

We’re all guinea pigs for endocrine disrupting chemicals (hormone-disrupting chemicals that cause reproductive, developmental, immune, and neurological issues). The FDA only does crude testing for them, and the EPA does none. BPA, an endocrine disrupting compound that’s used to make things like epoxy resins, was only called out as being harmful after the public realized it was in baby bottles, store receipts, cans, and any number of other products. Companies fearful of negative PR quickly scrambled to remove BPA from their products, but they may have done more harm that good.


Now a new tool developed by a team of 23 chemists and biologists, described in a paper published in Green Chemistry, could ensure that the next generation of products doesn’t mess with our hormones. It just requires that companies care.

“With current replacements, we know far less about their toxicity. We’re replacing a known bad player with something whose characteristics we don’t know,” explains John Peterson Myers, the CEO and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences and one of the paper’s authors. Myers cites the example of thermal receipt paper. A big chunk of receipt paper brands contain BPA, but many of them don’t. It turns out that the paper without BPA instead contains a minor variation on the compound called BPS. There have been just three toxicological studies done on BPS compared to over 1,000 for BPA. And from what we can tell, it’s just as harmful.

That’s where the tool, dubbed the “TiPED” system (Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption), comes in. It has one goal, according to Dr. Karen Peabody O’Brien, executive director of Advancing Green Chemistry and another author of the study: “If I was making a new product and I wanted to be really sure it wasn’t going to accidentally interfere with people’s hormones, this is a tool that allows me to do that type of testing.” In other words, TiPED predicts the likelihood that a given chemical is an endocrine disrupter.

TiPED consists of five testing tiers at different levels of complexity. One suite of tools uses only computers to test the chemicals. It’s a quick process and it gives the first hint of a problem, but it’s not very accurate. From there, the tests get more complicated–one exposes a collection of cells to questionable chemical compounds, another exposes tissue (i.e. breast tissue, and so on. “We look at fish and frogs, and in the last tier we look at mammals, mice and rats,” says O’Brien. “There are tests that show hormones are being disrupted without us knowing the exact mechanism.”

The testing varies in cost, ranging from $5,000 for a quick read all the way up to $1 million for tier five testing. It just depends how far a company wants to go.

But while the TiPED testing can tell chemists what chemicals will cause endocrine disruption, it doesn’t provide alternatives. That’s becoming less and less of a problem, however, as the science of endocrine disruption has advanced. “We really do understand often the molecular details of how it’s working and chemists know how to change molecular shapes. You come up with the possibility that you can design a material that has just exactly the type of characteristics you want,” says Myers.

There’s no doubt that major companies will want to use the tool, especially those that sell products to young children. As Myers explains: “If you go to Walmart today and go to the section of the store with baby bottles, virtually every one has a BPA-free sign on it. That’s a market signal telling companies that people wants to buy something which isn’t a hormone disrupter.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.