The battle over health risks of plastic feedstock bisphenol A has been a public relations nightmare, but it probably won't have a major effect on the consumption and use of polycarbonate.
Although megaretailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has pulled BPA-made items from its Canadian stores - and water-bottle maker Nalgene Outdoor Products is dropping PC as well - the overall water bottle/baby bottle segment is too small to make much of a dent in the overall PC world, according to industry players and analysts.
Actions taken by Wal-Mart of Bentonville, Ark., and Nalgene of Rochester, N.Y., were prompted by recent reports from federal agency Health Canada and the U.S.-based National Toxicology Program. Health Canada proposed a ban on PC baby bottles, while NTP stated that BPA could create adverse health effects in developing fetuses, infants and pregnant women.
The water- and baby-bottle segments account for less than 10 percent of total North American PC use, and may constitute less than 5 percent, according to market analysts Greg Smith and Jignesh Shah.
``Bottles are a niche segment in polycarbonate,'' said Smith, who is with Resin Technology Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas. ``Some of the bottle business will switch to other materials, but the whole market isn't going to be affected.''
Shah, of Chemical Market Resources in Houston, said the BPA purge won't have much impact on overall supply and demand of PC. Overall North American PC demand is estimated at about 1.5 billion pounds annually, with about one-third of that going into the automotive market. PC is the dominant end use for BPA, consuming about 75 percent of North America's total output, according to industry sources.
Dow Chemical Co. - No. 3 in the regional PC market with a 10 percent share - believes that ``the science supports the safety'' of BPA, said Mark Walton, communications leader for Dow's chemicals and health issues. But he added that Midland, Mich.-based Dow does not make any PC grades that specifically are designed for bottle use.
``The types of items that are the focus of these reports aren't target markets for Dow,'' Walton said.
Officials at Sabic Innovative Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass. - North America's largest PC maker with a 45 percent market share - declined to comment, referring all calls to the American Chemistry Council of Arlington, Va. At Pittsburgh-based Bayer Material Science LLC, the No. 2 North American PC player with a 25 percent market share, officials agreed that the PC products at issue represent less than 5 percent of the resin's total market.
Bayer officials declined further comment, but also said that they support ACC's position on BPA.
ACC's official position, according to the group's affiliated bisphenol-a.org Web site, is that studies done by academic, government and industry researchers ``consistently show that the potential migration of BPA into food is extremely low, generally less than 5 parts per billion under conditions typical for uses of polycarbonate products.''
``At this level, a consumer would have to ingest more than 1,300 pounds of food and beverages in contact with polycarbonate every day for an entire lifetime to exceed the safe level of BPA set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Consequently, human exposure to BPA from polycarbonate plastics is minimal and poses no known health risk.''
According to ACC, the use of polycarbonate for food-contact applications continues to be recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Commission Scientific Committee on Food, United Kingdom Food Standards Agency, Japan Ministry for Health and Welfare and other regulatory authorities worldwide.
On April 17, ACC wrote to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach requesting that the association update its review of the safety of BPA in food-contact applications.
``We believe that an update by FDA, accompanied by a clear communication from the agency about what the science means, is needed, and ask FDA to move forward promptly with this review,'' ACC said in a news release.
But the furor already has led to a lawsuit, and is creating opportunities for competing plastic materials such as copolyester.
In a lawsuit filed April 22 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Calif., Lani Felix-Lozano is seeking unspecified damages from Nalgene bottle maker Nalge Nunc International Corp. of Rochester. Felix-Lozano's lawyers say in court filings that she bought several of the bottles for herself and her daughters, ages 11 and 13, who used them in sports activities. But, lawyers contend, she ``was given no information or warning by [Nalge Nunc] regarding the BPA risks associated with the bottles.''
Officials with Nalge Nunc and its parent firm, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass., could not be reached for comment.
As far as potential replacements go, Eastman Chemical Co. has been touting its Tritan-brand copolyester as a PC replacement for several months. Tritan has been adopted by Nalgene - which is phasing out PC bottles over the next few months - and by bottle maker CamelBak Products LLC of Petaluma, Calif., which has said its bottles will be BPA-free by the end of April.
In an e-mail response, Eastman's Deborah Baum Crain said that the BPA situation ``has sparked interest'' in Tritan-brand copolyester. She added that it is too early to tell how much sales volume Eastman could pick up from products switching from PC to copolyester.
Tritan's lower heat resistance prevents it from competing with PC in all markets, Baum Crain said, but the material has good heat and chemical resistance, and hydrolytic stability for ``dishwasher environments'' used to clean water bottles.
Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman also announced April 25 that it plans to build a new 66 million-pound-capacity copolyester plant in Kingsport. That plant is set to open in 2010. Eastman already is completing a previously announced copolyester expansion, also in Kingsport. Officials had said that about 220 million pounds of PET bottle resin capacity will be converted to copolyester.
Officials with DuPont Co., another copolyester maker, could not be reached for comment.
Analysts Smith and Shah each said they were surprised at the speed and intensity shown by the attacks on BPA.
``I don't think [BPA's opponents] have really proven significant risk,'' Smith said. ``This issue has gotten more traction than I thought it would. There have been concerns about PVC and polystyrene in the past, and maybe those have lingered.
``The fact that people are saying children can be harmed is probably making it worse, as far as bad publicity, but I'm not sure [the criticism] is justified,'' he added.
Smith also pointed out that previous targets PVC and PS ``are still around.''
``In the long term, materials don't get deselected because of environmental concerns,'' he said. ``They get deselected because of cost.''
To Shah, the blitz on BPA is an indicator that such challenges are driven by retailers instead of regulators.
``Retailers like Wal-Mart have become very large buyers and they now can dictate some terms to manufacturers,'' Shah said. ``If regulators have concerns about a product, they do testing. But if a retailer sees that a product has a negative perception, they just pull it. There's no phaseout period.''