What is BPA and why is it bad for me? How can I avoid BPA and other chemicals in plastic?
You’ve heard correctly! Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic chemical that has been widely used in plastic manufacturing since the 1950s. The compound is used to line metal cans of food, and to form many plastic containers and cash register receipts. As convenient as plastic packaging is, and as pervasive as it has become, you should still try to choose different packaging or otherwise limit your exposure to BPA because of the health risks.
As is so often the case with many modern chemicals, many plastics are deemed safe because they seem to have no ill effects after short-term exposure. Unfortunately, scientists have recently shown that plastics can off-gas or leach toxic compounds into the surrounding environment in relatively small but sometimes physiologically significant quantities. Bisphenols appear to be one (among many) of those compounds leached from plastic.
The most serious concern about BPA is that it disrupts the endocrine system. Endocrine disruptors are insidious, interfering with normal, often very fine-tuned and subtle interactions among our bodies’ natural hormones, hormone receptors, and the physiological processes they regulate. If fetuses, infants or children are exposed to persistent doses of an endocrine disruptor, they may experience developmental ramifications, such as abnormal growth patterns. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration halted BPA use in baby bottles, sippy cups and plastic formula packaging. The FDA claimed to have made the decision based on market demand, not safety. Manufacturers insist only high levels of BPA will cause endocrine disruption. Independent scientists say any amount is too much. As a biochemist who has studied this issue, I say you should avoid all exposure to endocrine disruptors.
Are you safe if you choose packaging or products that are labeled “BPA-free”? Perhaps not. Many BPA-free products are indeed free of BPA. However, Bisphenol S is a common substitute, and that compound may be just as toxic. And bisphenols may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unsafe chemicals in plastic. Phthalates — synthetic compounds that help make plastic flexible — are even more pervasive in plastics than bisphenols and have been linked to asthma, breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and more. Phthalates, or their chemical components, are commonly found in human urine. The Centers for Disease Control reports that phthalates are present in the bodies of most North Americans.
Because of the prevalence of plastic, taking complete control of your BPA consumption will be difficult, but reducing your exposure is entirely achievable. Eat fresh, local foods when you can — many grocery stores sell produce without plastic packaging around it, and you can then transport your fresh food in a reusable cloth bag. Buy food packaged in glass containers as often as possible, and use glass, porcelain or steel containers to store and reheat food. You can also drink from a BPA-free stainless steel bottle. These tactics will help lower the levels of bisphenols and phthalates in your body, in spite of their pervasiveness in our plastic-packed world.
Photo courtesy Rubbermaid: Many manufacturers now offer plastic products free of Bisphenol A (BPA).