The truth about BPA
Despite mounting evidence that BPA is harmful, industry insiders insist it's safe. Who do we believe?
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 - 18:15
SAFE SIPS: Many parents are opting for BPA-free baby bottles after studies showed that the chemical may harm babies and young children. (Photo: thesoftlanding/Flickr)
When you open a newspaper or surf the web lately, it seems like you can't help but be confronted by articles warning you of your own impending doom. It seems as if there is always some new discovery of the grimmest nature, always something new that is going to kill us if we eat too much, or get too close, or look at it the wrong way. And the warnings are usually accompanied by ten others saying, "That's not true!" or "Wait, this other thing is worse!" If high fructose corn syrup doesn't kill me, hormones in meat might. And, if I'm not dead by forty from smog exposure, surely the carcinogens in my extra crispy bacon will get me. In this sea of constant alarm, it's often hard to tell where the real dangers lie.
BPA (bisphenol A) is one of the chemicals that's gotten a lot of bad press in recent years, but the experts seem to have gone back and forth. The plastics industry claims it's safe; the FDA almost agreed, but then changed its mind and said that there is actually some reason for concern. Food safety advocates say it should go and Canada recently declared it a known toxin. But who's right? And what is BPA anyway?
BPA is a chemical that is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. It's commonly used in hard plastic containers such as baby bottles and reusable beverage bottles, but you'll also find it in the lining of canned foods and aluminum soda cans. In fact, you'll find BPA in a number of surprising places such as dental sealants — yes, in your mouth — and even in the paper receipts you get when you purchase something at the store. In each of these cases, small levels of BPA can leach out of the product, allowing the chemical to find its way into our bodies. A 1995 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 95 percent of Americans had traces of BPA in their bodies, which means that the vast majority of us have it inside us right now. Should we be worried?
The problem with BPA is that its chemical structure is very similar to estrogen, a hormone that is involved in a large number of processes in our bodies. Chemical mimics like BPA can bind to estrogen receptors, tricking our system and setting off a cascade of potential problems. BPA has been linked to diseases that range from obesity and cancer in adults to abnormal brain development in fetuses, babies and small children. And yet many companies continue to sell plastics made with BPA, claiming that these products are perfectly safe.
The truth lies in how you define "safe." No one doubts that BPA is toxic; the question is, how much can we tolerate before it actually causes a problem? The plastics industry argues that the amounts we ingest are simply too small to be dangerous, but several scientific studies show that BPA can be harmful at concentrations as low as 1 part per million. That's 50 times lower than what the FDA considers safe.
So what should we do? As consumers, we each have to make a choice about what we put into our bodies and what is acceptable to us. On my end, I've decided not to risk it. I recycled all my old polycarbonate bottles and replaced them with new BPA-free or stainless steel versions. I limit the amount of canned food I eat and buy fresh whenever I can. And I cut out soda because it's bad for me on about eight different levels anyway.
If you're concerned about identifying items with BPA, remember that there are seven types of plastics used in recyclable packaging, each marked with a triangle and a number. Polycarbonate plastics fall into the category of type seven plastics, which are marked with the numbers 07. Not all type seven plastics are polycarbonate, however, and not all contain BPA, so use the number 7 as a rough guideline rather than a hard-and-fast rule. Some PVC plastics, which are marked with the numbers 03 also contain BPA.
Photo: Wiki Commons