BPA: How Bad Is It?
Get ready to clean out your cabinets.
by Lynn Harris
August 10, 2009
My mother has been warning me about plastics for years. Water bottles, storage containers, crappy baby toys: really, she says, they all have to go. (In the trash; for God’s sake, not in the microwave.) There’s this stuff in them called Bisphenol-A (BPA), she’s long said, and it’s bad.
When my first child came, I obeyed, dutifully and selectively – researching and purchasing BPA-free baby bottles but kind of willfully forgetting about the rest. I believed BPA was a problem, but that’s about all I wanted to know. I mean, the planet’s teeming with toxins. Heed every warning, limit children to everything-free everything, and they’re left with a couple of hemp onesies and one paintless wooden toy from Vermont. They touch everything on the subway and lick hummus off the floor; we figure out what we can live with and we hope for the best. Right?
Well, by the time my second child came, mom had raised the threat level to orange. Cans, she said. Now it was cans, too. Cans! The BPA inside cans apparently leached into the food – yes, even into fancy dolphin-safe tuna and organic beans. I was aware that the FDA had declared BPA to be safe. But my mother is not one to, like, forward around crazy all-caps e-mails about asbestos in tampons, you know? And this time, I had twice as many kids to worry about. So I dug a little deeper.
And, as it turns out, BPA is the chemical my mother warned you about. It is a type of compound called an endocrine disruptor, which means it mimics or alters the effects of a particular hormone – in this case estrogen – in your body, throwing everything out of whack. It is bad for you, and your pregnancy, and your kids, and it is, almost literally, everywhere: in baby feeding items, water bottles, soda and soup cans, PVC pipes, carbon-paper-style sales receipts, dental fixtures, the water supply, even in the goddamn air. (And probably in your body: the CDC has detected BPA in 93 percent of people 6 years old and up.) Compounds like BPA barely existed 100 years ago; now they, and their effects, are inescapable. As Devra Lee Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, told Newsweek, “We’ve changed the nature of nature.”
As news goes, this is not breaking. Scientists and watchdog groups have long sounded the alarm that BPA is thought to cause disorders of the neurological, cardiac, immune, and reproductive systems, with adults, children, and developing fetuses all exposed and at risk. (This month’s example: The Endocrine Society saw fit to make BPA the topic of its first-ever “scientific statement,” declaring that exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals raise “significant concern for public health.”) Minnesota, Connecticut, Chicago, and the entire nation of Canada have already enacted various BPA bans; twenty-four other states – and even possibly Congress – are starting to get in line. Japan outlawed the stuff in 1998, for goodness’ sake.
Yet here we fiddle while BPA leaches. In my unscientific survey of friends with kids, half said their level of concern about BPA was approximately (to quote one and paraphrase the rest),”Meh.” Why? Not because they’re negligent parents, or because my mom hasn’t gotten up in their grills. Because what the chemical and packaging industries have also manufactured and released into the air is doubt. The American Chemistry Council maintains that the risk presented by BPA is minimal. But the industry’s goal, say experts and expos’s alike, is to create confusion about BPA among consumers where, among scientists, there is none at all.
“There is no controversy about the dangers of BPA,” says leading BPA expert Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri and a prominent researcher in the field of developmental biology. “There is an illusion of a controversy. You have hundreds of papers by independent scientists, all showing harm. You have [a handful of] industry-funded studies saying it’s safe. In the scientific community, that’s a joke. Though it’s not at all funny.”
The FDA is part of the problem. The agency was found to have based its determination that BPA was safe on only two of a kabillion BPA studies – two that were funded, as it turns out, by the American Plastics Council. (Similar doubt has been cast on the National Toxicology Program and its tepid warnings about BPA.) Under fire from Congress and scientists, even those within its own ranks, the FDA has now agreed to undertake a new safety review, with a decision expected by late summer or early fall. But that won’t tell us anything the scientific community doesn’t already know. So here is what you should know, now, about BPA: why you should probably buy soup in boxes and beans in bulk, and why you should probably also be very, very angry.
BPA was invented by chemists in 1891 as a pharmaceutical estrogen, but its use as such was leapfrogged by the even more potent DES (Diethylstilbestrol). DES, as you may recall, was withdrawn from the market in the 1970s when it was linked to reproductive cancers among girls whose mothers took it during pregnancy. Yet, even as BPA became a standard ingredient in hard plastics called polycarbonates and epoxy resins such as those that line food cans, no one said, “Hmm, DES: canary, coalmine.” Even in 1976, when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, BPA was one of 62,000 chemicals “grandfathered” in without evaluation, according to the Environmental Working Group.