If you frequently eat from a plastic food container or drink from a plastic bottle, chances are you are ingesting Bisphenol A (BPA), a toxic chemical compound with proven links with a wide range of health disorders, from infertility and breast and prostate cancers, to thyroid malfunction, attention deficit syndrome and recurrent miscarriage.
BPA is a key ingredient in plastic food storage containers, plastic baby bottles and in metal food can linings. It’s unnatural and poisonous and has no place in food. Yet each time you or your baby eat or drink from a plastic container or bottle, chances are you’re taking in this toxin too, because it seeps from a wide range of plastic products in use today — including “microwave-safe” plastics. This was discovered in a recent lab analysis of plastic-packed food items by the Journal Sentinel, an American newspaper.
BPA is commonly thought to be found only in hard, clear plastic (ie polycarbonate) and in the lining of metal food cans, but the Journal Sentinel’s test in August 2008 detected BPA even in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers and plastic baby food packaging.
In the test, BPA was also found to be leaching from containers with the recycling numbers 1 (PETE or PET— ie Polyethylene Terephthalate), 2 (HDPE — ie High Density Polyethylene) and 5 (PP — ie Polypropylene).
The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals. The problems include genital defects, behavioural changes and abnormal development of mammary glands. The changes to the mammary glands were identical to those observed in women at higher risk for breast cancer.
The newspaper’s test results raise new questions about the chemical — and the safety of an entire inventory of plastic products labeled as “microwave safe”. The findings show that there is no such thing as “microwave safe” plastics.
According to the Journal Sentinel report (15 November 2008), BPA was found to be leaching from all plastic containers of 10 food products that it tested, all of which were heated in a microwave or conventional oven.
The 10 food items involved were: Munchkin bowls, Gerber Graduates Pasta Pick-ups, Rubbermaid Premier food storage container, Gerber 2nd Foods Hawaiian Delight dessert, Campbell’s Just Heat & Enjoy tomato soup, Enfamil liquid baby formula, Hormel chili, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Stouffer’s lasagna. Playtex VentAire baby bottles also were tested, but the company has since reformulated the product to eliminate Bisphenol A.
Tiny Amounts Can Do Big Damage
Some of the food companies implicated claim the doses detected in the tests — some samples had BPA as low as 40-60 parts per trillion (ppt) — are insignificant to human health.
But the Journal Sentinel identified several peer-reviewed studies that found harm to animals at levels similar to those detected in its own tests — in some cases, as low as 25 ppt.
Scientists with an expertise in BPA say the findings are cause for concern, especially considering how vulnerable a baby’s development is and how even tiny amounts of BPA can trigger cell damage.
BPA is a known endocrine disruptor. Unlike other toxins that become more potent as their doses increase, endocrine disruptors behave like hormones — BPA mimics estrogen (the female sex hormone) — with effects that are ultra-potent: Even tiny amounts can trigger cell change.
Harm during this “critical window” of development is irreparable and can be devastating, they say. (Different periods of human development are susceptible to chemical exposure. These “critical windows” are characterised by hormone regulation of cell proliferation in developing organs, cell migration, and development of specialised function).
Nira Ben-Jonathan, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, whose studies found that BPA interferes with chemotherapy, said the chemical’s effects might not be immediately obvious, but can be devastating over time.
“They used to say DDT (the first synthetic pesticide of the modern age, now long banned in much of the world) was safe, too,” Ben-Jonathan said.
Leads to Breast Cancer
The Journal Sentinel’s tests were done to determine the prevalence of BPA in a typical modern diet for babies and small children.
Based on the test results, the newspaper then estimated the amount of BPA a child might consume and compared it with low-dose amounts of BPA used by researchers in animal studies.
In what is believed to be the first analysis of its kind by a newspaper, the Journal Sentinel found that an average 1 month-old girl is exposed to the same amount of BPA that caused mammary gland changes in mice.
Those same changes in humans can lead to breast cancer.
“This is stuff that shouldn’t be in our babies’ and infants’ bodies,” said Patricia Hunt, a professor at Washington State University who pioneered studies linking BPA to cancer.
“We know a woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is directly linked to her lifetime exposure to estrogen — both natural and synthetic estrogen. It’s outrageous that manufacturers of some baby bottles are exposing little girls to BPA … and possibly increasing that little girl’s risk of breast cancer later in life, especially when safe alternatives are available,” says Janet Nudelman, Director of the Program and Policy for the Breast Cancer Fund in the US.
Linked to Heart Disease & Diabetes
According to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (16 September 2008), BPA is also linked with heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, two of the world’s biggest killers.
In a study of nearly 1,500 people, researchers in the United Kingdom found that subjects who were diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes had higher concentrations of BPA in their urine.
In the study — the first study of BPA’s effects on humans — tests carried out on more than 1,400 Americans, as part of a nationwide study, showed that more than 90% had recognisable levels of BPA in their bodies.
The scientists believe that BPA can cause metabolic syndrome, in which patients suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and struggle to control their blood sugar levels.
They found that the chemical can more than double the likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease, even when other factors, including obesity, were accounted for.
BPA could also be linked to early onset of puberty and obesity, according to animal studies.
Actual Dose in Foods Could Be Higher
Experts say we could be exposed to more BPA in food than what the latest findings show. Because all products the Journal Sentinel had tested were new, BPA experts believe that the newspaper’s tests underestimated the amounts of BPA that normally would be leaching from reusable products.
Studies show that as products age and are repeatedly heated and washed, they are more likely to leach higher amounts of BPA.
Also, the tests did not examine the food in those containers for BPA levels. The food in those containers was replaced with a mixture of water and alcohol, a standard laboratory practice that makes measuring easier and more accurate. But that also eliminates other variables that are in the food, such as fats and acids that are more likely to encourage BPA to leach.
“You can’t see this happening. You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, but you are getting dosed at a higher and higher amount,” says Frederick vom Saal, a university of Missouri researcher who oversaw the newspaper’s testing.
According to vom Saal, BPA’s effects also can be magnified by other chemicals in the plastic. This has been proved in one experiment after another, said vom Saal, who has become a vocal critic of the chemical industry.