Many popular kitchen appliances such as blenders and juicers are made with plastics. Since the BPA scare, we are all more mindful about the safety of these plastics. So I decided to take a closer look at the plastic used for the growing barrels of the Freshlife Sprouter (the part that touches the sprouts). Like many kitchen appliances, it is made of Styrene Acetylonitrile Resin (SAN). I researched 3 areas related to SAN: 1) the safety of the material; 2) How it is being used; and 3) the overall impact of plastics and similar pollutants on our environment.
For the record, I am totally opposed to BPA in our food. I am convinced that it is a hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen. It can affect the prostate, the breasts, the testes, the mammary glands, the pancreas, and who knows what else. I do not trust the studies that say it is rapidly detoxified and eliminated and is therefore not a concern. BPA is used on the inside of most food and beverage cans and infant formula bottles. It should be banned.
SAN is the main plastic used to make the Freshlife sprouter. Although it is not BPA, it is not good enough just to say that SAN is “approved for food consumption” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many of us have lost faith in that government agency. I, for one, prefer an independent review.
I am not a chemist, but I can tell you that even for chemists, the differences between the various permutations of the plastics used in our foods and the safety issues around them is complex. It gets even more complex when the chemicals are compounded. Therefore, research teams are the best way to investigate whether specific chemicals or compounds of them are going to have an impact on human health. This approach was done for Bisphenol A. Nevertheless, the results were disputed by other scientists and groups with vested interests. So if you can’t get the scientists to agree, how are the rest of us expected to get clarity!
The good news for the Freshlife Sprouter and other SAN containing kitchen appliances is that I could not find any relationship between SAN and BPA. Sure, I asked the manufacturer first and I could have just taken their word for it, right? But no, I wanted to find out for myself. I could find no evidence of BPA in SAN.
However, I am going to share my sources with you so that if you desire, you can review the data for yourself. I am not an expert in this field and again plastics are complex, highly controversial, and discerning between the different kinds truly requires the skills of a chemist.
One of my most trusted sources was the independent consumer watchdog the Environmental Working Group, http://www.EWG.org. In my opinion these folks are better at protecting us from environmental hazards than the U.S. government Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). My review of their data on SAN and even on the independent chemicals that make up the SAN compound came up clean. I could not find a relationship between BPA and SAN nor its components styrene and acrylonitrile.
I also researched SAN and BPA with the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) http://www.epa.gov/iris. This is a U.S. EPA database and it is quite extensive. I searched for styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) as well as its components styrene and acrylonitrile. I could not find any connection for these products to BPA. Keep in mind, SAN is not polystyrene, not polycarbonate, not ABS, nor acrylamide. Some of these do indeed have connections with BPA. But all these are different plastics made from different chemicals. When researching BPA or anything else, you cannot lump the various plastics together.
I also researched SAN in five consumer health and safety databases. I looked at The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) for their toxicological profile for styrene. I also found the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services to be very helpful. They produce a Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet that is very helpful. Check it out at: http://web.doh.state.nj.us/rtkhsfs/factsheets.aspx
And I reviewed the OSHA database. This is the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They are the U.S. Government agency that adopts and enforces health and safety hazards. Similarly, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) was very helpful. They publish guidelines on “Threshold Limit Values” for exposures to workplace chemicals. And I spent time researching SAN at NIOSH. This is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. They conduct studies of workplace hazards and make recommendations to OSHA. All of these agencies have collected enormous amounts of data on SAN and other plastics used by consumers and workers with the explicit task of evaluating threats to public health.
Plastics are used everywhere in our society. SAN (styrene acrylonitrile) is used mostly in consumer goods and appliances. SAN resins have a glass-like clarity and their products are dishwasher safe. Its qualities include: high impact strength,
dimensional stability, heat resistance, and the ability to be washed at and withstand high temperatures. That is why if you look, you will find SAN not just in your Freshlife Sprouter, but also in several other products likely hanging around your kitchen and your home.
Finding no BPA connection with SAN itself, I decided to investigate the two components that make up SAN independently, styrene and Acetylonitrile. I did this knowing that the compound has different qualities than the independent ingredients. Nevertheless, I reasoned that if BPA is in the elements of the compound, then there is concern that it could be in the compound, too. To my relief, I found no BPA connection in the independent chemicals.
A word about the independent chemicals. Styrene is a clear, colorless liquid. It is used as a component in everything from food containers and packaging materials to cars, boats, computers, and video games. In other words, you’ve been using it and touching it for a long time. It is remarkably strong, flexible, and light-weight. Although the styrene used in these products is synthesized in petrochemical plants, I was surprised to learn that styrene also occurs naturally in the environment and is in fact present in many common foods including coffee, strawberries, and cinnamon!
For what it is worth, two Canadian government agencies Health Canada and Environment Canada concluded in 1994 that styrene “does not constitute a danger to human life and health” and “does not constitute a danger to the environment on which human life depends.”
In addition, I read an assessment on styrene risk by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. They also concluded that there were no concerns for the general public, either from environmental or consumer exposures to styrene. But I was not able to determine who financed the study. Was it Harvard or was it a chemical industry group? Sadly, neither research nor science is immune to the influence of money.
How We Use The Freshlife Sprouter
One thing about sprouting is that unlike other foods, there is no cooking required. Growing sprouts does not require anything chemically aggressive such as salt, vinegar, lemon, boiling, freezing, heating, stirring, scratching, frying, nothing. The only thing that interacts with the plastic during sprouting is cold water. The heating of plastic increases the chances of its degradation and “leaching” into food. This evidence can be found in numerous tests on polycarbonate and BPA, which is how the BPA scare started in the first place, with heated baby formulas. As soon as the infant formula was heated, the leached chemical content increased dramatically. Acidic foods such as vinegars and lemon also increase leaching.
Fortunately, in sprouting we are only dealing with cold water and that water has a neutral pH –no acidity.
How Do We Measure our Contact with these Chemicals?
The U.S. EPA sets approved levels of toxic materials. Frankly, zero is the only amount I want. However, from the government’s perspective, these poisons are already in the environment and they want to know at what levels they move from being background pollution into something that can affect people’s health. When looking at chemical tolerances, I found that the EPA capped a lot of different plastics at around 30 parts per million. This means, they consider anything below that exposure to be background pollution or harmless. It’s their way of distinguishing between a scratch and a gash. Both draw blood, but one is life threatening while the other is insignificant.
Since these plastics are already in the environment and are often hanging out in our kitchens, that means we are already exposed. Well, if 30ppm is considered the boundary, what does that actually mean? If we were to convert it to seconds, we could compare a million seconds vs. 30 seconds. Everybody knows what 30 seconds is. A million seconds is approximately 12 days. That is 12 full (24 hour) days or 288 hours. For me, 30 seconds gets totally lost over the course of a even one day. But 30 seconds out of 12 days and 12 nights gives you a sense of how minuscule 30ppm truly is.
When you are discussing such low levels of exposure it forces us to look at all of our environmental risks more broadly. For example, as a devoted certified organic food consumer, I am astonished to learn that many organics contain 30ppm of different pesticides from exposure to ambient pollution in the air, water and soil that includes residues of pesticides. And what about dental x-rays, solar radiation, air pollution, and the water pollutants coming out of our showers and baths?
I am not inclined to justify any level of pollution. But sadly, we already live in a polluted environment. Therefore my question becomes: when does a background pollutant become as hazard? Is it the equivalent of sitting in front of a television tube? Or walking under overhead electrical wires, or absorbing cosmic radiation on an airliner, or ultraviolet radiation at the beach? And don’t get me started about cell phone radiation, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth! I’m the type of guy who holds his breath when filling up at the gas station and wears a pendant, a bracelet, and a magic button on my cell phone to protect me—hopefully—from all this invisible pollution. So how do we rank the plastics in our kitchens, computers, and cars against all this other stuff?
I truly believe that the sprouts growing in my Freshlife Sprouter barrel are not exposed to any plastic pollution from the SAN. In fact, those sprouts are actually nourishing me beyond anything I can buy at the produce stand and are enhancing my immunity and adding to my longevity. I don’t have faith in all the plastics that are out there, but filling my diet with the highest quality home-grown foods on the planet is one thing I can trust.