The controversy over Bisphenol A, or BPA, continues, as heated as it was in 2008, when reports about possible health consequences to humans from long-term exposure followed reviews of many scientific studies.
What Is BPA?
BPA is a solid, colorless chemical used to make many kinds of plastics, and to make the sealant or liner on the inside of food and beverage cans. BPA is used to harden plastics, though it’s also found in some plastic sandwich bags and plastic cling wrap.
In modern society, it is virtually impossible to avoid exposure to BPA, as it’s in so many products that we use every day, including plastic milk jugs, food storage containers, tooth brushes, plastic containers of store-bought household cleaners, medical devices, and even some cash register and ATM receipts.
More than a million pounds of BPA are released into the environment each year, meaning that inevitably, this compound can find its way into our atmosphere and our water supply.
Ten years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found traces of the chemical in 93 percent of 2,517 urine samples tested, from Americans who were 6 years and older. The samples were considered representative of the United States population.
Possible Health Risks of Long-Term BPA Exposure
A lot of studies in rodents, and more recently, humans, have been done to try to determine the toxicity to humans, if any, of long-term BPA exposure. Mice studies have found that BPA can tamper with the development of mouse fetuses and young mice. But so far, scientists can’t agree on whether the harm that BPA does to mice would also happen in humans, since humans are believed to process the chemical differently.
Some scientists believe that BPA is not toxic to humans, but other scientists believe that it is.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to pinpoint the effects of BPA to our systems is that BPA isn’t like most environmental toxins, which typically harm us when toxic levels in our systems exceed certain quantities. BPA, on the other hand, is an endocrine disruptor — a substance that alters the way the body’s hormones work. BPA is believed to change the way the sex hormone estrogen affects our bodies.
Estrogen can change more than 200 genes, which affect the growth of almost all organs and body tissues, according to the Environmental Working Group. Some studies have found that relatively low levels of BPA exposure change the reproductive systems of male mice. Pregnant mice exposed to BPA can have female pups with abnormalities in the ovaries, thus impacting future generations of mice.
As the results of newer studies are coming out, more scientists are concluding that BPA can or does harm humans when it’s ingested beyond minute levels, and that we should do our best to limit our exposure. The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) now has some concerns about the effects of BPA exposure at current levels, on the brains, behavior and prostate glands of fetuses, babies and children. Many health professionals and researchers also believe that absorption of BPA may be causing the earlier onset of puberty experienced by many American girls in modern times.
Where Things Stand Now
Since 2008, both the European Union and Canada have banned the manufacture of baby bottles, sippy cups and other baby products with BPA. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit, directing manufacturers to stop using BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, then later, in liners of baby formula containers. The FDA ban came after manufacturers had stopped using BPA in these baby products, when alarmed consumers stopped buying them.
The FDA continues to maintain that BPA is safe at the low levels of ingestion that can come from plastic food containers, food-storage containers and food cans. But both the EWG and the American Medical Association believe that banning BPA from baby products is just the tip of the iceberg; these organizations would like to see a total ban on BPA. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists are also in support of a complete ban on BPA.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the NTP have partnered up to conduct more studies on the effects of BPA in humans, which may change recommendations for BPA use in the next few years. But many doctors and scientists believe that we know enough, and that bans should be instituted now.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself
As consumers, the more practical immediate focus is to minimize direct ingestion of BPA from food containers and kitchen products:
- Look for products that are labeled “BPA-free”
- Amazon.com is a good source for many types of ecologically sound home products. They may cost a bit more, but will be worth it
- SC Johnson’s Ziploc plastic food bags and containers are BPA-free
- Consider using food-storage containers that aren’t made of plastic. More options are on the market now than before; glass, porcelain and stainless steel are all safe alternatives
- Avoid using canned food, or look for canned-food brands that specifically label their containers “BPA-free”
- Buy more fresh fruits and vegetables; frozen fruits and vegetables are good also
- Buy fruit juices and milk sold in paper cartons, instead of plastic containers
- Never heat plastic containers that could contain BPA in a microwave oven, as they can leach BPA into the food
- Never pour boiling water into a plastic baby bottle (be advised that even BPA-free plastics can have other possibly harmful chemicals that may leach when they’re in contact with boiling water, so it is never a good idea to pour boiling water into a plastic container)
- Wash plastic dishes, cups and baby bottles that may contain BPA by hand, and not in a hot dishwasher
- Opt for a wooden cutting board in your kitchen, instead of a plastic one
- Limit your consumption of sodas, if you drink them at all
- Wear rubber gloves when doing house-cleaning
By Jamell Andrews