The word is already out that bisphenol-A (BPA), could be harmful to your health. Scientists have been searching for alternatives, but not everyone is sure they can be deemed safe, either.

BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastics for use in things like shatter-resistant sports equipment, glasses lenses, and water bottles. It is also used in some receipt paper and canned food linings.

Across the globe, between five and six billion pounds of BPA are generated per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that it is continuing to research the safety of BPA, but generally says that low levels of exposure are safe. Health concerns have arisen about BPA because it can affect the endocrine system, which controls the release of hormones in our bodies.

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At a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Kaleigh Reno, a graduate student at the University of Delaware, gave a presentation detailing how lignin could be a smart alternative to BPA. Lignin is a compound that makes wood strong. It is part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae.

Reno said that each year, the industrial process of pulping wood to make paper generates 70 million tons of lignin byproduct, which can be burned to produce energy. “Using the 70 million tons of lignin to synthesize commodity and specialty chemicals, both higher-value products, holds the potential for increasing revenue and the sustainability of the chemical and plastics industries,” Reno said, adding that there are many pathways to convert lignin into specialty and commodity chemicals, such as BPA alternatives.

She teamed up with Richard Wool, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Delaware, to develop a process that converts lignin fragments into bisguaiacol-F (BGF), which is similar to BPA. They say that BGF will act as BPA does, giving added strength and rigidity to consumer products without BPA's potential health risks.

“We have designed the BPA alternative to have similar features to BPA that will impart similar or improved mechanical properties but has a decreased potential to cause adverse side effects on human health,” Reno said.

“We expect to show that BGF has BPA-like properties within a year,” Wool said, noting that he would have a product ready for the market in two to five years.

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Is BGF Safe?

Reno said the molecular structure of BPA affects natural hormones, and she used that knowledge to come up with BGF. It is not capable of interfering with hormones in the same way; however, it retains the mechanical and thermal properties of BPA. She used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency software to evaluate BGF, and said that early evaluations indicate it will be less toxic than BPA. More research is needed, she added.

The researchers chose BGF based on their unique Twinkling Fractal Theory, which evaluates the thermal and mechanical properties of new substances. “This approach considerably simplifies the design of new bio-based materials, since we can predetermine properties and screen for toxicity for a broad range of potential compounds from renewable resources such as lignin and plant oils,” Wool said.

“It's hard to know if BPA alternatives are toxic or not. It's certainly a worry,” said Heather Patisaul, a professor at North Carolina State University who has studied BPA. “There is a lot of concern that potential replacements are just as toxic, especially if they are structurally similar. Standard chemical development and toxicity testing may not catch that, which is an additional concern. “

Patisaul said it was proactive of the researchers to try and develop something that would not be as “endocrine disrupting as BPA.”

“That's progressive thinking and a very positive development,” she said. “The new technology is potentially very exciting, particularly since the group was mindful about endocrine-disrupting effects throughout the whole development process.”

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A Promising Alternative?

“BGF might prove a safe substitute to the mass-produced and widely used chemical BPA,” said Cheryl S. Rosenfeld, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Missouri, who has also researched BPA.

She said that BPA can bind to various steroid receptors in the body, and this leads to endocrine system disruption.

Though Wool and Reno report that structural modifications to BGF keep it from binding to similar steroid receptors, even partial or weak binding to steroid receptors may disrupt normal hormonal processes. Other naturally occurring plant chemicals, such as phytoestrogens, can alter several hormonal pathways, Rosenfeld noted.

More research is needed to verify that BGF does not bind to the steroid receptors. “If no potentially ill effects are noted in animal model studies, BGF might be a promising alternative to BPA,” she said.

Patisaul said that viable replacements for known endocrine disruptors like BPA are good news for consumers.

“Developing strategies for designing new chemicals that are useful, but not toxic, would be extraordinarily helpful for identifying and using ‘safer’ products,” she said.

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