Is melamine the next BPA?

Chemical Pollution

Is melamine the next BPA?

Published on 07 Feb 2020

During the last ten years or so, Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, has arguably become the “poster child” for hormone-disrupting chemicals in everyday products. Lately, we have been asked by both companies and regulators if there is a “next BPA” to keep track of.

We believe there is one such chemical: melamine.

This high-volume chemical is used in everything from wood panels to washing powder. It is also the building block of a porcelain-like plastic with the same name. Being light and hardy, it has become a popular material for tableware, especially for kids and for outdoor activities.

Melamine has a horrible history of scandals. It can be illegally added to food products to fake a higher protein content.

In 2008, a melamine-contaminated milk substitute was given to 300,000 Chinese infants out of which 50,000 were hospitalised and six died.

“This high-volume chemical is used in everything from wood panels to washing powder”

These children suffered from kidney failure, and kidney toxicity is also one of the most well-known problems with melamine.

An EU classification of melamine for being specific organ toxic and carcinogenic is recently under discussion. Last summer, the International Cancer Research Agency (IARC) also classified melamine as a possible carcinogen to humans.

The plastic material called melamine is built from melamine and formaldehyde, another toxic substance. This material gained attention recently as it has been used in so-called “bamboo cups” for takeaway coffee. These cups apparently have some bamboo in them, but even more of melamine resin.

This autumn, the German risk agency BfR issued a warning for using these cups specifically, and also for using melamine in contact with hot drinks and meals. Why? Well, both melamine and formaldehyde leak out when the material is heated. Also, acidic food and drinks increase this leakage.

Why one would choose to manufacture kitchenware that becomes toxic under very normal circumstances – some hot food, anyone? – is beyond me.

Aside from melamine resin, melamine is also used in paints and coatings, flooring, machine wash liquids, leather treatment products, flame retardants and more. It is produced and imported in the EU in amounts of up to a million tonnes per year.

In addition to being toxic, it is also persistent and mobile, and therefore widespread and frequently found in the environment. It is routinely found in almost every natural water source, as well as in food, cattle and people. Considering the widespread use and thereby also the challenge for industry to substitute it, I think there are reasons to call melamine “the next BPA”.

We placed melamine on the SIN List in November 2019 along with another fifteen substances with Persistent, Mobile and Toxic (PMT) properties. Of the sixteen PMTs, melamine is the one that has received the most attention.

Just like BPA became the poster child of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, I have a hunch that melamine may become the same for PMTs.

Dr. Anna Lennquist
Senior Toxicologist

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