Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is an industrial chemical used in manufacturing hard plastic bottles and metal-based food and beverage cans since the 1960s. The chemical is a synthetic estrogen typically used to harden polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resin. It is used in paints, coatings, and many items other than food storage containers. The Environmental Working Group estimates six billion pounds of BPA are manufactured annually, selling for about $6 billion.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of BPA in the urine of 93 percent of Americans over the age of six; and yet, there remain no national regulations designed to prevent BPA from contaminating food. The National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed particular concern about the chemical’s effects on fetuses, as well as young children. The agencies have stated that studies were needed to eliminate “uncertainties about the risks of BPA.”
To date, the primary precautions enacted in the United States are designed to minimize exposure to this vulnerable age range… The focus has shifted in recent years to question BPA use in food containers with the aim of protection for all age groups.
After years of criticism from scientists and non-profits, the FDA announced in January 2010 it was investigating low-dose BPA risks and advocating for BPA-free can linings. To date, the primary precautions enacted in the United States are designed to minimize exposure to this vulnerable age range such as halting the use of baby bottles and infant feeding cups containing BPA. In plastics, the substance breaks down if an item is heated or washed in strong detergent.
The focus has shifted in recent years to question BPA use in food containers with the aim of protection for all age groups. Opinions are entrenched and polarized. In an editorial for Chem.Info, Dr. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance Inc., a lobby group for the food and beverage packaging industry, says that metal cans are a “proven packaging technology” that serve a “critical role in feeding the world’s population.” He claims, “Regulatory experts worldwide are in agreement regarding the safe use of BPA epoxy resin coatings in food packaging.” He says the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and World Health Organization have, after reviewing the scientific data, determined BPA is safe for use in food packaging. “National agencies in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States concluded the same — that BPA is safe for use in metal packaging. Despite their determination of BPA’s safety in food contact applications, these agencies are continuing to monitor the science on the issue.”
However, Bobbi Chase Wilding, BPA coordinator for National Workgroup for Safe Markets, offered a counterargument in that same publication. She says, “The truth is, during the past half-century, rates of diseases linked to BPA and other synthetic chemicals have risen, including diabetes, reproductive dysfunctions, breast and prostate cancers and learning disabilities. There is broad scientific recognition of the problems posed by BPA.” Her group found that in a test of food packed in cans “likely to be lined with BPA-based epoxy … the results were shocking. 90% [sic] of canned foods had detectible levels of BPA, and some were alarmingly high. By eating just one serving of canned green beans during pregnancy, a woman could expose her vulnerable fetus to levels of BPA that increase aggression and predisposition to prostate cancer in animal studies.”
Those calling for stricter regulations for BPA’s use in conjunction with food storage and consumption insist there is a lengthy corpus of studies stating there are definitive health problems that occur when humans are exposed to BPA. “A lot is known about both BPA and DEHP, though I am struck by what we are just now learning. Exposure before birth to BPA, phthalates, some pesticides and compounds used in nonstick cooking surfaces and stain repellents can reprogram cells’ fate to make them fat cells, having much the same impact as two diabetes drugs for which obesity is a side effect,” wrote watchdog Wendy Gordon, founder of the consumer outreach organization Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet.
“Exposure to BPA has been associated with a predisposition to breast and prostate cancer, with altered development of the brain resulting in behavioral changes, and with chromosomal abnormalities. Other studies have associated BPA with changes in metabolism resulting in a pre-diabetes condition (insulin resistance) and, as noted above, changes in fat distribution in the body. “What are the costs associated with these health problems? Are they so insignificant that we’d rather choose them over changing the lining of soup cans?” Gordon concluded.
Food containers are not the only source of human BPA exposure. In July 2010, the Environmental Working Group found high levels of BPA on 40 percent of receipts sampled from major U.S. businesses. It is used to coat some thermal papers used for printing receipts. But eliminating the chemical from the food supply remains the greatest concern. According to a recent study, those families eating fresh food in the home –- that is, avoiding canned foods and beverages as well as meals from outside the home –- can reduce their BPA an average of 60 percent. The Breast Cancer Fund and Silent Spring Institute funded the study, which was published in March 2011 in Environmental Health Perspectives. In addition, bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) also found in food containers has been associated with endocrine disruption in animals, as well as in some human studies. The Breast Cancer Fund says this clearly demonstrates both BPA and DEHP exposure can be reduced “by cooking fresh foods at home, avoiding canned foods, choosing glass and stainless steel food and beverage containers, and not microwaving in plastic.”
Image by Steven Depolo, used under its Creative Commons license.
By Linda Dailey Paulson
What Are YOUR Thoughts? Should the FDA ban the use of BPA in food containers like so many other countries have? Please comment below.