Many of us look for the BPA-free labels when buying plastic food storage containers. But are these BPA-free plastics really safe?

Megan Rizer, a fourth-year biomedical sciences student, wanted to find out for herself. Rizer is studying the alternative compounds used in BPA-free plastics to find out whether they contain the same harmful properties as BPA.

Her research recently earned her a Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher Award, which recognizes outstanding academic research by UCF undergraduates. Winners receive a $200 scholarship.

Rizer’s research focuses on bisphenols, a group of chemicals that has been used to make plastics and other products since the 1960s. Typically found in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles, BPA or bisphenol-A is the most well-known of the group, as exposure to it has been associated with cancer, genetic mutation and reproductive issues.

Many countries, including the United States, have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles, prompting manufacturers to find alternate compounds to make plastics. But many BPA-free labeled plastics still contain derivatives or analogs of bisphenols that Rizer says are structurally similar to BPA and can be just as harmful.

Working with College of Medicine faculty researchers Emily Bradshaw and Alicia Hawthorne, Rizer is investigating two most commonly used analogs – BPF and BPS – to see whether they have the same potential mutagenicity, the ability to cause genetic mutations as BPA.

“These analogs have never really been thoroughly tested as to whether they are mutagenic,” Rizer says. “So we’re looking at these most common analogs to make sure that they are safe.”

For the study, Rizer treated cells from mice with various concentrations of BPA, BPF and BPS and incubated them for 24 hours. She then measured a gene—GADD45 alpha that increases when DNA mutations are occurring within a cell.

“So far, our preliminary data indicates that the analogs are very similar in terms of their levels of mutagenicity compared to BPA,” she said. “We found BPS to be the safest option but it is still harmful. However, these are still preliminary findings and we have a long ways to go and will do further studies before we can prove that.”

Rizer has presented her preliminary findings at three local conferences including the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference and is currently preparing a submission for the Experimental Biology 2020 conference.

“People tend to take anything someone says as the truth. So to be able to actually discover what the truth is, and the scientific reasoning behind it is something that has always been very appealing to me,” says Rizer. “I’ve always loved the idea of being able to actually figure something out or discover something for myself.”

Hawthorne who has been mentoring Rizer since her first year at UCF, says research comes naturally to Rizer.

“She is quite intellectual and is able to understand the project, task, or what needs to be done,” Hawthorne says. “She always thinks ahead and has great ideas for future projects.”

After graduating from UCF on Dec. 13, Rizer will continue her work as a research assistant in Hawthorne’s lab while applying for medical school.

“I have always known that I want to be a doctor,” says Rizer, who lost her mother to cancer when Rizer was 11. “When my mom was diagnosed I would go to her doctor’s appointments. The doctors could tell I was interested in learning about medicine so they would try to explain everything to me and I was always intrigued. I also want to be able to have a direct impact, possibly helping to save lives.”