Last year, when I first began hearing about BPA (aka Bisphenol A, a substance used in hard clear plastics and in the epoxy resin coatings lining canned food), I went on a plastic purge. Someone told me to look for plastics numbered 3 and 7, so out those went–along, in a surge of overenthusiasm, with a whole lot of plastic plates and bowls that I tossed on the theory that someone might warn me about them next week. I replaced them with old-fashioned tin plates and mugs and called it good.
But avoiding BPA isn’t as easy as I’d hoped–and there’s a good argument that you do want to avoid it, especially for kids. Studies have found that drinking from bottles made with the chemical increases the amount of it found in your urine, and another study suggested it may lodge itself in fatty tissue. This may not matter–it’s not entirely clear that BPA is harmful. But it’s also not clear that it’s not–exposure in infants has been linked with the early onset of sexual maturation, and more tentatively associated with heart disease and diabetes. As Carolyn reported last week, that’s enough for Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois and Connecticut, all of which have imposed some ban on the substance.
The California assembly just passed a ban on BPA in food and beverage containers manufactured for children three and under. The ban still has to be considered by the CA Senate and signed by the governor before it becomes law–and does nothing about BPA in canned foods or adult products. In fact, none of the existing bans on BPA will result in any of us leading a BPA-free life. For that we’re on our own. My plastic purge wasn’t nearly enough (frankly I forgot about the canned food entirely). What do we have to do to avoid BPA–and why is it our job to do it?
Buying products labeled BPA-free is a good start. I got rid of a slew of polycarbonate sports bottles; now their manufacturer (Nalgene) claims to manufacture the bottles without the chemical. They’re still labeled with a 7 recycling code (turns out that’s the catch-all-combo-category) so you have to rely on labels and packaging promising that your purchase is BPA-free. Canned foods are more difficult. Stores like Trader Joes say most of their products are sold in BPA-free cans, and manufacturers like Eden also say they use a BPA-free canning process–but both note that tomatoes and tomato products are still sold in cans with a liner that contains the chemical. (For more manufacturers using BPA-free canning processes, look here.) You can buy tomato sauce in jars, but ordinary canned tomato products are tough. If I had a child under three, I might consider simply not serving them for a while.
The difficulty with conducting a personal vendetta on BPA is that it has some unexpected uses (Carolyn mentioned the ink used to print receipts–so don’t eat those). The Environmental Working Group has some other tips for avoiding BPA, but the more you read, the more clear it becomes that it’s going to be nearly impossible to completely eliminate the chemical on our own. You probably won’t spot every lurking fragment of BPA–and even if you did, what’s next? Plastics are, by definition, chemicals. Avoiding plastics entirely is a task I know I’m not up to, and avoiding harmful chemicals for my entire family isn’t really a job I’d expected to have to tackle on my own.
I suspect that for my kids, even my plastic purge came too late–the most dramatic suspicions concerning BPA surround exposure in infancy. Thinking about the bottles we used to store breastmilk–now no longer manufactured–makes me want to purge again. But mostly, it makes me angry. Why was it up to me to protect my kids from this one? Aren’t their government agencies meant to allow me to rely on the idea that at least the major products used in our lives are safe? The answer, unfortunately, turns out to be “kinda.” It all comes down to a fundamental disagreement on what it should take to regulate chemicals used in food and food products. Are they guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven to cause harm? You can probably guess what the standard is now.
Before you vote in your next local and national elections, you might want to consider what your candidate thinks of that question. Many of the obvious issues in elections don’t have much effect on many of us on a daily basis–but that one does. Do we want the next BPA to be discovered before it’s put into our bottles, cans and food supply–or after?