BPA: How bad is it?

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.

BPA: How Bad Is It?

Get ready to clean out your cabinets.

by Lynn Harris

August 10, 2009



“People are saying, ‘I can’t believe we were allowed to be exposed to this, I can’t believe this was allowed to be put into contact with food when it was originally developed to be an estrogen,'” says Laura N. Vandenberg, Ph.D., a developmental biologist at Tufts University. “It’s not like we found out after using it that it has this hormone activity. We knew that first.”

In 1997, Dr. vom Saal became the first of many scientists to document harmful effects of BPA exposure – in this particular study, on the prostate – at levels far lower than those that had been deemed safe by the EPA. (It should be noted that BPA is technically a trigger, not a “toxin”; therefore, the dose does not make the poison.) In the subsequent cascade of research, BPA was also linked to breast damage and cancer, early puberty, obesity, miscarriage, creepy behavioral changes (e.g., mice exposed in utero exhibited fewer maternal behaviors as adults); more recently, to liver problems, ovarian cysts, diabetes, heart disease, even interference with chemotherapy. And more.

All the while, more consumer news: canned infant formula and baby bottles were found to be contaminated, along with canned food in general. Uh-oh, Spaghettios.

“You could live in a bubble, but the bubble would be made of plastic.” Retailers and manufacturers, at least, have pulled ahead of regulatory agencies. CVS, Walmart, and Toys R Us have phased out baby bottles containing BPA; more and more companies – Playtex, Avent, Rubbermaid, and others – have begun to offer BPA-free products.

So we see, at least, which way the tide is flowing. (In an increasingly desperate attempt to stem it, the newly formed BPA Joint Trade Association, it was reported, brainstormed ideas such as lining up a “holy grail” spokesperson: a “pregnant young mother . . . willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.” Yeah. Short speech.) (The BPA JTA says the leaked memos were not authentic.)

What can we do in our own families? First, a little perspective is in order. All of our children have been exposed – gah – but really, there’s no way in hell they couldn’t have been. Remember: this stuff is in the air. As Vandenberg notes: “You could live in a bubble, but the bubble would be made of plastic.”

Vom Saal is even more blunt. “Until we have a regulatory system we can trust – and we do not have one now – parents have to not beat themselves up for not knowing something they were lied to about,” he says. “All they can do is act on the information they do have now.”

Such as:

1. Check product labels and websites; buy BPA-free bottles, sippys, and dishes/utensils for babies and children. (Phthalate-free too, while you’re at it.) You could also look for polypropylene (rather than polycarbonate), but your best bet is an actual “BPA-free” seal of approval.

2. Check resin (recycling) numbers on plastic containers. Generally, #2 and #5 are BPA-free. Avoid #7. (Seven is the catch-all “other” category, so a 7 might not contain BPA, but play it safe.)

3. Use only powder-based infant formula.

4. Steer away from canned food (other than Eden brand, which is BPA-free), and toward fresh, bottled, and frozen. To the degree that you can afford it, at least. (Note: it’s not possible to can tomatoes without BPA because of the acid. But even Dr. Vandenberg uses them for for soup once in a while.)

5. Drink filtered water, using a filter on the tap unless you are sure your refrigerator pitcher is BPA-free. (Brita is.)

6. Toss old Nalgene water bottles; the new ones are okay. So are single-use water bottles, though not for the environment. Use stainless steel when you’re on the go. 7. Make sure plastic wraps and bags are BPA-free. (Saran and Ziploc are.)

8. Repeat: “There is no such thing as microwave-safe plastic.” Not even if it’s marked “microwave-safe,” according to an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (whose reporters won a Polk award for their BPA watchdogging).

9. Use wood, bamboo, or otherwise BPA-free (non-polycarbonate) cutting boards.

10. Get on the horn. Is there a ban yet in your city or state? If not, make some calls. “Parents are what changed baby bottles,” says Vandenberg. “The easiest and most effective thing to do about BPA is to speak up.”

About the Author


author bioLynn Harris is an award-winning journalist, author of the comic novel Death By Chick Lit, and co-creator of the venerable website She and her husband live in Brooklyn with Bess, and Sam, 3 and 1, who are polishing up their Vaudeville act.



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