Should you be worried about bisphenol A?

On the top shelf of my kitchen cupboard is a trio of polycarbonate water bottles
in various shapes and sizes. They used to go everywhere with me — to the gym,
to the office, in the car or out shopping. Now they collect dust.

I suspect my cupboard isn’t the only one housing these questionable items.
Many people are confused about the safety of these plastics after all the media
attention given to bisphenol A (BPA). Concern about the affects of this chemical
have prompted many companies to implement voluntary recalls — yanking water
bottles just like mine off the shelves.

The problem is a little bigger than that. A lot of the questions focus on baby
bottles, which are often heated in the microwave. Food storage containers, disposable
cutlery, compact discs, eye glass lenses and the lining of tin cans also contain
the chemical. Why? BPA helps make plastic more durable and shatter-resistant.
The problem is that it leaches out into our food and drink.

It’s been around for 50 years, and its use is fairly widespread. But is it

No, it’s hazardous

Research has proven that BPA is a hormone disruptor, meaning that it can affect
the genital tract, cause a decline in testosterone and sperm count, increase
prostate weight and make the prostate more sensitive to hormones. It can also
make breast cells and prostate cells more prone to cancer, and can affect normal
human development such as learning difficulties and hyperactivity. There’s data
to suggest that it’s harmful, but most of the research was conducted on animals
and the results don’t easily translate to humans.

However, new research is starting to shed some light on the chemical’s effects
on humans. A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical
shows that years of exposure to BPA could be linked to heart
disease, diabetes and liver damage.

Researchers from Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England and the University
of Iowa examined the urine samples from 1455 Americans as part of a government
health survey in 2003-2004. They found that 90 per cent of the samples contained
supposedly “safe” amounts of BPA. Furthermore, people with the highest
concentrations of BPA in their urine had nearly two and a half times the odds
of Type 2 diabetes and three times the odds of heart disease. Higher BPA concentrations
were also linked to abnormal concentrations of liver enzymes which are markers
of liver damage.

Researchers and critics alike are quick to note the study doesn’t actually
prove that BPA causes these diseases, but it does demonstrate there is a connection.
That connection warrants further investigation. (Read
the full story from the CBC).

But the study is enough to raise some troubling questions. According to an
article on CNN
, there have been renewed calls from experts for the government
to take action now to limit BPA rather than waiting for more research.

Yes, it’s safe

However, not everyone is convinced of the dangers. The American Chemistry
Council, a group that represents chemical manufacturers, claims the study is
flawed and doesn’t prove that BPA is harmful.

“Overall, due to inherent limitations in study design, this new study
cannot support a conclusion that bisphenol A causes any disease,” stated
Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council’s Polycarbonate/BPA
Global Group in a press
. “The weight of scientific evidence continues to support the
conclusion of governments worldwide that bisphenol A is not a significant health
concern at the trace levels present in some consumer products.”

Which “governments worldwide” support the position? Back in July,
the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that the low levels of BPA in
consumer products don’t pose a risk to the population (adults or children).
According to the July
30 announcement
water bottles and baby bottles are safe, and the risk of
exposure to developing fetuses is “negligible”.

And, in a recent announcement coinciding with the aforementioned study’s release,
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defended its position that the chemical
doesn’t pose a threat.

“Right now, our tentative conclusion is that it’s safe, so we’re not recommending
any change in habits,” Laura Tarantino, head of the FDA’s office of food
additive safety, told CNN. The FDA’s website echoes this message. It says that
the general public can continue using products containing BPA while the FDA
continues to review new evidence and assess the risk.

In short, governments likely won’t take action until more evidence proves BPA
is harmful.

What is Canada’s position?

But perhaps not all governments feel this way. If you look at the
Canadian government’s Bisphenol
A Fact Sheet
, you’ll find a similar position: “Bisphenol A does
not pose a risk to the general population, including adults, teenagers and children.
Consumers can continue to use polycarbonate water bottles and consume canned
foods and beverages, as the level of exposure from these products is very low.”
Same goes for canned foods: no need to change your habits — unless you’re eating
hundreds of cans a day.

Where Canada’s position differs from other government is in the ages. Infants
under the age of 18 months are not included in this statement. Why? Newborns
and infants could be particularly sensitive to BPA, and they’re at the earliest
states in their development. In addition, the exposure level in infants is too
close to the level where problems could occur.

As a result, Canada announced on October 18 that it has added BPA to its list of toxic substances, and is drafting legislative to ban its use in baby bottles and to limit its use in infant formula cans (and canned foods in general).

“It is concluded that bisphenol A be considered as a substance that may be entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that constitute or may constitute a danger in Canada to human life or health,” the health and environment departments said in the Canada Gazette, a government publication.

The bottom line

What’s a confused consumer to do? It’s business as usual… for now. The
one thing that everyone can agree on is that if you have concerns, you can take
steps to limit your exposure:

– Look for the number 7 in the recycling symbol on the container (that marks
the “other” category for plastics). Not all items in this class are
made with BPA, but they may contain the chemical. Plastics marked with codes
1 to 6, like those used for bottled water, are not manufactured with BPA.

– Avoid heating food in plastic food storage containers, or heating or cooling
liquid in plastic bottles. Heat makes it easier for the chemical to migrate
from the plastic into food and beverages. Cold, cool and room temperature liquids
are safest.

– Use baby bottles and water bottles that are made of BPA-free plastic, aluminium,
glass (where practical) or stainless steel. Some manufacturers of aluminium
and stainless steel bottles offer sports caps and “sippy cup” adapters
for their products.

– Limit the amount of canned foods you eat. BPA may be used to make the resin
that lines the cans, though amounts are very small. Since fresh or frozen foods
are preferable for daily consumption, this precaution shouldn’t be a problem.

– Pregnant women should be especially cautious, just in case.

Overall, adults are at the least risk (if there is any risk at all). BPA has
been around for fifty years, so avoiding long term exposure may already be a
moot point. The potential harms certainly warrant further investigation, but
that doesn’t help consumers today who are looking at their cupboard and wondering
whether or not something is safe. For now, safety depends on who you ask, and
the issue isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon.


of exposure to BPA linked to health risks in humans: study

(Environmental Defence)

A Fact Sheet
(Government of Canada)

Photo © Lukasz Simonowicz