How does a chemical like Bisphenol A end up in our food and drink, and what could it do once it gets in there – or into us?
First created in the late 1800s, BPA was discovered by scientists in the 1930s to be a synthetic substitute for the hormone estrogen. But it was until a few decades later when chemists combined BPA with other compounds – including phosgene, used during WWI as a toxic gas – that it was found to create a clear, polycarbonate plastic that was shatter resistant.
This popular plastic is used in countless products – from headlights to eyeglasses, to baby bottles, plastic bottles and can liners. But the problem is, BPA doesn’t always stay put. It can work itself free of the plastic and into the food and drink inside, even more so when the plastic is heated, such as in a microwave or dishwasher.
More than 93 percent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. At issue now in the scientific and health communities – exactly what is the chemical doing to our health, and exactly how much BPA exposure is considered ‘safe?’ And should it ever be in contact with our food and drink?
To date, more than 200 government-funded studies have been conducted on BPA, with over 90 percent finding detrimental health effects from exposure. Health problems range from early puberty to breast and prostate cancer. Reproductive development disorders such as abnormal ovaries, reduced sperm count and miscarriages have also been associated with BPA.
Babies and young children may be particularly vulnerable because they may metabolize BPA more slowly than adults, and BPA can interfere with their growth and development, impair learning and contribute to hyperactivity.
Federal guidelines put the daily limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. But that level is based on experiments done in the 1980s – and hasn’t been updated since, despite hundreds of more recent studies indicating that serious health risks could result from much lower doses of BPA.
In fact, a 2008 report from another federal agency, the National Toxicology Program, concluded that BPA was of “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current human exposures.”
The government continues to study the issue, investing some $30 million in both human and animal studies to assess the health risks. But it has yet to change its guidelines.
A year ago, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg shifted it’s stance saying the agency is ‘concerned’ about BPA’s health effects, and backs efforts to produce BPA-free baby bottles and find alternatives to BPA for can linings.
Consumers Union continues to call for a ban on BPA from all food and beverage containers, especially in light of the FDA’s concern over potential health effects on babies and children.
“We are concerned that the new advice on reducing exposure puts the onus on consumers to protect themselves until such a ban is put in place.” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Consumers Union’s director of technical policy. “The scientific evidence has been steadily mounting linking BPA to a wide array of health effects, and may be particularly harmful to children and the developing fetus. It is time for the FDA and Congress to act quickly to ban this toxin from all food and beverage containers.”