How much of the food you eat comes in plastic packaging or cans? How often do you drink from plastic containers and water bottles? Or handle till receipts? Chances are, the answer to all of those questions is ‘a lot’, which also means you’ve probably got some Bisphenol A (BPA) kicking around in your system right now.
What is BPA?
BPA is a chemical that has been used in the manufacture of plastics and plastic resin for decades. It’s in a lot food and drink packaging, and in the resin which coats the inside of aluminum and steel cans. It’s also found in till receipts and other consumer products, like sunglasses and CD cases.
When food or drinks are stored in material that contains BPA, the chemical leeches into it, resulting in us, consumers, getting trace amounts of it in our bodies. Once the chemical is in our system, in most cases it is broken down pretty quickly by our kidneys and comes out of the body in our urine, but some studies have found that BPA can remain present for almost 2 days, enabling it to build up in our fat cells. The chemical can also be transferred through contact with the skin, though less research has been carried out on this method of transfer.
BPA’s main function is that it hardens plastic, but it has also been found to mimic estrogen and act as an ‘endocrine disruptor’. This means that at certain doses, it can have all kinds of negative effects on the hormone system; it’s been linked with infertility in men, breast cancer and prostate cancer, as well as diabetes and heart disease. Scientists have also expressed concern about the effects of BPA on unborn babies, as the brain is more susceptible to hormone disruption at this stage. A study by Brown University linked behavioral problems later in life with early childhood exposure to BPA.
How Prevalent is it?
A recent study by researchers at Essex University found that 86% of teenagers had traces of BPA in their body. This falls in line with an American study which found BPA in 93% of children over 6 years old, and a German one which found the chemical in 99% of children between 3 and 14 years old.
So, stop buying food and drink in plastic containers and you’ll be fine, right? Well, maybe not. That BPA is so prevalent in packaging that it’s almost impossible to rid it from your diet entirely. Even if you were to avoid food packaged in plastic at the point of purchase, there’s almost no way of knowing whether the product has come into contact with BPA at some other point.
The Exeter University study asked their subjects to avoid any product containing the chemical, then re-tested them for traces a few weeks later. They found that even when avoiding plastics, the levels of BPA in their bodies were very similar.
Is BPA Really Dangerous?
People have started to study the effects of BPA and raise concerns about it only in the last decade or so. A large number of independent studies over the years have found that exposure to BPA can cause problems ranging from infertility to increased risk of certain cancers.
Though BPA has been banned in certain products and in certain countries, it remains a much-used chemical in most of the world, despite concerns. This is largely due to the chemical’s classification by most large regulatory bodies. The FDA’s latest report concluded that “BPA is safe at current levels occurring in food”. In 2015, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) responded to growing concerns by stating that it “poses no health risk to consumers of any age group at current exposure levels.”
Lobbying and Industry Influence
Some scientists argue that studies showing strong links to negative health effects have been ignored by regulators, whereas those which found no risks were cited. An analysis in 2006 found that 11 out of 11 industry-funded studies had come to the conclusion that BPA caused no particular effects, whereas 109 out of 119 studies which were totally independent did find negative effects. In its 2014 report, the FDA judged 48 studies on the effects of BPA to be of “no utility.”
Worryingly, it’s been suggested that this is down to intensive lobbying by representatives of the plastics industry, who would stand to lose an awful lot if concerns about BPA were confirmed. The foremost group on this issue is the American Chemistry Council, who have spent over $50million on lobbying fees since 2013.
Can You Avoid BPA Exposure?
If you’re not convinced by the official verdict on BPA and you’re concerned about exposure, it seems sensible to try and avoid it. But as we’ve said, there’s almost no way to be 100% sure it’s not around you. Some experts say you can take steps to lower the risk of exposure by cutting down on canned goods, not microwaving any plastics containers, switching to porcelain or stainless steel where possible and, if you have kids, making sure to only use baby bottles labelled BPA free.