That crazy BPA is back in the news AGAIN. The latest locus of scary plastic seepage: the inside of your mouth. Yes, it turns out that all that dental stuff they’ve been telling you is completely safe might not be a good idea for pregnant women. The bad news was buried in a story proclaiming BPA-laced dental sealants just fine for children. The study recommends that pregnant women avoid bisphenol A products in dental work until their babies are born. This may be a case of excessive pregnancy caution, but the more we learn about BPA, the less comfortable I am having it anywhere near me.
Plastic in dentistry has been a popular show on my personal anxiety channel for some time. Over the years, I have been pooh-poohed by some of the more well established dentists in the New York metropolitan area. So reading this, I feel simultaneously freaked out and strangely vindicated.
But what does all this really mean for the pregnant woman and her teeth? Pregnant women have always been encouraged to be proactive about dental work. The swelling of tissues often correlates with gum problems, and cleanings are considered extra-important to prevent lasting damage. Cleanings aren’t what we’re talking about here, there’s no BPA involved (unless there’s some hiding in that toothpaste??)
But what happens if something more serious comes up?
Dental issues are always happening at the wrong time. I had to get some stuff done when I was pregnant, and it made me crazy nervous. Everyone assured me I was fine. Back when we were doing an advice column on Babble, we answered a question from a panicked breastfeeding mom who had swallowed a composite filling. We assured her she was fine. Because as far as “studies had shown” to that point, there was no concrete reason to believe otherwise.
The info we have on BPA is far from conclusive. There are strong voices on either side of the fence proclaiming it harmless and deadly, respectively. In Monday’s NYTimes, Denise Grady’s thorough piece explores the political complexities of the BPA investigation. She also explains why fetal exposure is of particular concern, quoting a 2009 report from the Endocrine Society.
“fetuses exposed to chemicals in the womb could experience effects later in life, and pass those abnormalities to future generations….Scientists call such effects “the fetal basis of adult disease,” and say they probably result from epigenetic changes — meaning that the chemicals alter the functioning of genes, turning them on or off, but do not cause mutations, which are changes in the actual structure of the genes. Some scientists said that they had doubted that low doses could cause harm, but changed their minds after seeing the data.”
The data showed that BPA acts like a hormone. Like a hormone, it can act on a number of different systems, and it can affect change in very small doses. This last bit seems to be very important, as historically speaking, the defense against the idea of BPA as dangerous was that human exposure levels, while persistent, are quite low.
Still, there is no hard line on whether or not BPA is a real risk. But the same study that suggested the BPA exposure in dental products was safe for children declared it less safe for pregnant women. Again, it’s not clear whether this is a “better safe than sorry” situation, or a direct response to the chemical’s suspected epigenetic action. It does seem to make sense to put off any dental work that involves plastics if you can help it. But if you happen to be one of the unlucky ones with more substantial dental needs during pregnancy, don’t panic. If an emergency arises, there are things you can do to minimize your risk.
Make sure your dentist knows your pregnant so he can take any necessary precautions. BPA is actually not present in the sealants and fillings themselves. The chemical is created from the combination of these plastics and saliva. Exposure can be vastly reduced by wiping off the area of application after the plastic is applied, suctioning saliva after the application, or both.
photo: Cory Doctorow/flickr