RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The Environmental Protection Agency this week announced it is opening up an investigation of bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical consumers commonly encounter in a variety of products, including rigid plastic dishes and flatware, water bottles, and baby bottles, along with the linings of most canned foods and drinks.
When looking at BPA, hundreds of nonindustry-sponsored studies have already turned up serious cause for concern. In fact, last year, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) reversed its previously lax stance on BPA, and is now more in line with the Department of Health and Human Services' U.S. National Toxicology Program's viewpoint that BPA is a risk of some concern to fetuses, babies, and young children, potentially causing neurological impairment and other developmental problems. In adults, BPA has been associated with heart disease, diabetes, and liver problems, while animal studies have found an increased risk of prostate and breast cancer.
Read more about BPA:
Canned Food Carries a Hidden Health Risk
"BPA-Free" Products May Still Contain BPA
Common Chemical Linked to a Slew of Health Problems
A Chemical Threat Gains New Urgency
Questionable Chemical Could Seep Into Your Soda
Chemical in Plastics May Be Especially Harmful to Women
"I'd put it right at the top of the list because right now we know more about it than most other chemicals," says endocrine-disruption expert Theo Colborn, PhD, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida, and president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. "It affects all systems of the body."
THE DETAILS: While BPA has received a free pass in the past—with government agencies relying on industry studies for safety data (despite the fact that hundreds of independent researchers were sounding the alarm bells)—the Obama administration is set to add BPA to its "Chemicals of Concern" list as it further investigates the chemical's impact on wildlife. EPA will also look at how BPA used in nonfood consumer items' packaging affects human health, particularly the health of young children. (The FDA is in charge of food and food-packaging exposures.)
Read on to find out how best to avoid BPA.
WHAT IT MEANS: BPA is so ubiquitous in modern-day living that it's actually detected in nearly all of us, too. Government studies have found trace amounts of the harmful chemical in more than 90 percent of Americans. Aside from the common exposure sources we've likely all heard about—rigid plastic bottles and metal food and drink cans—the chemical is also used in many products we don't directly put into our mouths, but ones we're exposed to every day. "That phone you're holding, the buildings we move and walk around in, shatterproof windows and windshields, they all contain BPA," says Colborn, coauthor of the landmark book on chemicals and hormone disruption, Our Stolen Future: How We Are Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival (Dutton Adult, 1996). "It's everywhere."
That's because BPA isn't just used for its rigid plastic properties in things like bottles and sporting equipment, but it's also used as a flame retardant in many plastic products. (Which makes it virtually impossible for consumers to know what products contain BPA.) And while you may not be putting these products into your mouth, Colborn says in the coming years, she expects more research to find BPA is affecting humans through skin absorption and inhalation of BPA in dust (in much the same way as we come in contact with other harmful flame retardants).
According to the EPA, 6 million tons of BPA are produced each year in the United States alone, where 1 million tons wind up back in the environment. There, it can pose health hazards for humans and wildlife at even very low levels. Researchers have detected BPA in surface water and drinking water.
Here's how to keep some major known sources of BPA out of your life, although the chemical is so widespread, it's not possible to totally eliminate it:
• Avoid plastic bottles and containers. To make things less complicated, just ditch plastic whenever possible and choose glass or food-grade stainless steel alternatives. The cardinal rule is to never heat any type of plastic, whether it claims to be "microwave safe" or not (this includes washing in the dishwasher, which breaks the plastic down faster, opening the door for leaching). The Milkwaukee Journal Sentinel heated 10 "microwave-safe" containers and found that all of them leached BPA. If you don't want to give up premade frozen meals, remove the plastic film, pop them out of the tray, and microwave them in a ceramic or glass bowl or heat them in the oven. As for bottles, opt for glass or food-grade stainless steel water or baby bottles, and be wary of bottles labeled BPA free. Tests have found some bottles advertised as BPA free still contain the chemical.
• Demand no receipt. The new types of thermal, carbon-copy–free register receipts are coated with BPA, which gets on your fingers and could be absorbed through your skin or ingested when you pick up and eat food, explains Colborn. Unless you need a receipt, tell the person at the register you don't want him or her to print one out. (Some places—Starbucks, for instance—will ask you if you want a receipt instead of automatically printing out a copy.) And make sure you don't put these thermal receipts in with your paper recycling. They can contaminate recycled paper products with BPA (as do many of the inks).
• Can cans. BPA is used in to line all metal food cans, and leaches into food. Opt for frozen, fresh, or dried foods instead. For more information, read Canned Food Carries Hidden Health Risk.
Published on: March 30, 2010