What’s the Problem with BPA?

Aili Maruyama, Valeria Merino and David Ayer

March 15, 2018

Earth Day Network’s Earth Day 2018 theme is Ending Plastic Pollution. When we think of plastic pollution, we typically think of harmed sea turtles and litter on the streets, but the impacts of plastic pollution truly reach all aspects of life, even human health.

Chemicals leached from some plastics used in food/beverage storage are potentially harmful to human health. Correlations have been shown between levels of some of these chemicals in the blood stream, and an increased risk of health issues such as cancer, early puberty, obesity, chromosomal and reproductive system abnormalities, and impaired brain and neurological functions.

Many plastics contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), a hormone disrupting chemical. First found in 1891, BPA has been used in the production of thousands of consumer products from food packaging to toys and healthcare equipment. If food or drinks are stored in these plastics, they can be contaminated. If food is microwaved in these containers chemicals like BPA can make their way into the food and into our bodies.

It is hard to prove whether BPA has a direct causal link with the diseases cited above, because many other chemicals are also suspected to be the culprit. However, studies keep emerging which contribute to a more complete picture of the situation. Meanwhile, the production and consumption of plastic continues to grow and is expected to triple in the next 20 years.

No international standard exists about the use of BPA in food containers and its impact on human health, but several countries are taking matters into their own hands. The European Food Security Authority took precautionary measures by listing BPA as ‘a substance of high concern.’ In 2016 Sweden banned the use of BPA in epoxy resins in water pipe linings. France has gone even further, banning the use of BPA in all packaging, containers and utensils that come into direct contact with food. Regardless, the United States Food and Drug Administration declared in a report in February 2018 that BPA is safe for food packaging. In reaction, scientists, environmental organizations, healthcare professionals, and consumer organizations strongly criticized this decision as reported in Mother Jones, raising the alarm about the use of BPA in food related products.

While more evidence is developed, companies that sell food products packaged in plastic can take the initiative to inform consumers about BPA used in food packaging, or by eliminating the use of BPA in plastic packaging material all together.

Many people feel reasonably concerned about the effect of BPA on their health. Although, many companies have chosen to label their product as BPA-free, this doesn’t mean a product is free from other harmful chemical compounds that are slightly different but have a different name. Indeed, the BPA-Free Package program, a third-party group that verifies that products don’t have BPA, is halting operations because the certification creates a “false halo of health” given growing evidence of the dangers of BPS and BPF. Still, because products with BPS and BPF behave similarly to products with BPA, you can follow these suggestions:

1. Consider discarding plastics:

  • Avoid microwaving food in plastic. If microwaving food in plastic is unavoidable, then pay attention to the recycling codes at the bottom of the container. Avoid any that have the code 3 or 7. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service advisesAmericans not to reuse margarine tubs, take-out containers, whipped topping bowls, and other one-time use containers, which are more likely to melt and cause chemicals to leach into food. And it’s not just some plastic containers; it’s most. An analysis of 455 common plastic products, including supposedly BPA-free ones, found that 70% tested positive for estrogenic activity; that number went up to 95% when the plastics were microwaved. BPA is a major ingredient in polycarbonate plastics, normally labeled with recycling number 7. While polypropylene and polyethylene plastics, marked with product codes 1, 2 and 5, appear safer, says Frederick vom Saal, one of the world’s leading researchers on the ill health effects of BPA in humans and animals, they may still contain BPA, because polycarbonate is often combined with other plastics, although it may not be listed on the label.
  • While you’re going through your plastic containers, consider also tossing any that are scratched or damaged. They might be a leaching risk.
  • Consider switching to glass containers in your kitchen. Most glass containers are microwave-safe, dishwasher-safe, do not stain and last for a long time.

2. Buy a reusable metallic or glass bottle.

3. Skip canned goods when possible: The plastic lining the inside of your bean or soup can could be made with BPA. Some companies use BPA-free cans which are labeled. Outside of those labeled cans, choose fresh produce whenever possible or look for food products packaged in other materials.

4. Do not handle receipts: The special thermal paper used to print credit card receipts or vendor machine receipts also contains BPA. Simply touching a receipt allows your skin to absorb the BPA. Avoid asking for or picking up those receipts to evade exposure.

If you’re interested in learning more about the real harm plastic causes to our lives and to our planet, and to find out how you can stop contributing to this problem, be sure to check out our Plastic Pollution Primer and Action Toolkit. It is full of valuable information and resources to help you join the cause of ending plastic pollution.