Bisphenol A (BPA) has been in the news a lot lately and is found in a surprising number of products we use in our daily lives. Canada, the European Union, and some states and municipalities in the US have banned its use in products for babies and small children, but many people insist that it’s perfectly safe. Should we avoid it, or have the dangers been greatly exaggerated? Let’s take a closer look.
BPA is an organic compound that is used in the manufacture of some polycarbonate (clear, rigid) plastics and epoxy resins. (“Organic” in this case meaning that it contains carbon.) While it is present in many household products such as CDs, DVDs, lightweight eyeglass lenses, and some electronics, our main exposure is through eating and drinking. Small quantities of the chemical can leech out into beverages served in polycarbonate cups or bottles, including reusable water bottles or baby bottles, especially if those beverages are hot. It can also get into food stored in containers made with BPA, and BPA resins are frequently used to coat the insides of food packaging, including canned foods and drinks. Once again, heating foods in these containers increases the amount that gets into the food.
The problem with BPA is that it can behave like a hormone in the human body, mimicking estrogen and possibly causing myriad health problems at elevated levels. Studies have found it to be present at detectable levels in 93-96% of people tested, so probably everybody reading this has a little bit in their bodies right now. Some studies have suggested that it passes through us relatively quickly and is unlikely to cause lasting harm, while others suggest that our constant exposure has risks since the excreted BPA is quickly replaced. Most adults don’t have enough in their systems to cause lasting harm, but the risk to infants and children is somewhat higher. A study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) released in 2008 wasn’t able to draw any definitive conclusions about how harmful BPA is, but suggested that most of the risks are not severe.
The most likely problem with BPA is that will affect the development of children’s brains and boys’ prostates, and will possibly cause behavioral problems, with a lower risk of causing early puberty and/or breast development in girls and virtually no risk of birth defects. There is very little chance of adverse effects in adults unless they work with the chemical without proper protection. A 2010 study of Chinese men who handle BPA in factories showed that they had low sperm counts and that the remaining sperm was of poor quality. American chemical companies were quick to claim that Americans didn’t suffer the same risks due to much lower exposure and that the study was therefore irrelevant. Not much consolation to the factory workers, who apparently don’t matter enough for the industry to want to make any changes.
Given that the highest risks are for fetuses, infants, and children, it absolutely makes sense to minimize their exposure to BPA. Some liquid baby formulas can contain traces of BPA from the lining of the containers; the risk can be minimized by simply putting it in a BPA-free container before heating it. Expressed breast milk should also be heated in BPA-free containers, though low levels of BPA are present in breastmilk if the mother is exposed to it (which again, pretty much everyone is). Powdered formula is much less likely to be contaminated by its containers. All of the most popular baby bottles have switched to BPA-free products and many large chains no longer sell any products that contain BPA. Most baby products these days are pretty clearly labelled (even those that aren’t even plastic and would have no reason to contain BPA), and you can also check the recycling code on the bottom. Anything with a 1, 2, 4, 5, or 6 is almost certainly BPA-free, while those in categories 3 and 7 are much more likely to contain it, though some are still ok. The easiest way to avoid it is to not use items made of rigid clear plastic in favor of glass or flexible, translucent, or colored plastics.
Hopefully the U.S. will follow other countries’ leads and pass a ban on its use in products for babies and children since they’re most at risk, but at this time it probably doesn’t make sense to ban it outright. At the very least, a substitute needs to be found and tested to make sure we don’t replace it with something more harmful. If you already have items that may contain BPA, you don’t necessarily have to throw them away; just don’t microwave them or otherwise heat the items and replace any scratched items that contain BPA since they’re more likely to leech the chemical. For example, I was very careful about what baby bottles and sippy cups I bought for my daughter because she was eventually using them daily, but I wasn’t going to throw out a perfectly good blender/food processor or freak out about whether pieces of my breast pump might contain BPA. And don’t go microwaving and licking your DVDs or eyeglasses; at that point, the BPA exposure is the least of your problems!
Since You Asked – Bisphenol A (BPA) | National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Bisphenol A (BPA) Information for Parents | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Bisphenol A | Wikipedia