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The BPA Debate: Politics and Your Health

Image courtesy knowabouthealth.com

The safety of the chemical BPA, or Bisphenol-A, has been a hotly debated subject for years now and after hundreds of studies, the world still has not settled on a clear answer regarding its safety. Several countries around the world maintain that BPA does not pose a significant health risk, while others, Canada for instance, have taken steps to formally identify BPA as a hazardous or toxic substance and restrict import, sales, and advertising of baby bottles containing it.

What is BPA?

BPA, originally developed as an estrogen replacement, is a chemical used primarily in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastic, a hard and clear plastic, is used in a variety of products including baby and water bottles, sports equipment, medical and dental devices, dental fillings and sealants, eyeglass lenses, CDs and DVDs, and household electronics. Epoxy resins are used as lacquers to coat the inside of almost all food and beverage cans. An EWG study of 97 canned foods in 2007 found the highest concentrations in canned soup, pastas, and liquid infant formula. BPA has also been found in high concentrations on thermal paper used to print airline tickets, event and movie tickets, and receipts at cash registers. It’s everywhere, people!

In studies conducted over the past 20 years, BPA has been detected in breast milk, serum, saliva, urine, amniotic fluid, and cord blood. A study conducted by the CDC in 2003-04 found BPA in the urine of 93% of adults and children over the age of 6 tested. Most human exposure is through ingestion as it leaches into our foods from the resin coatings or plastic, especially when washed or heated.

Why should we be concerned?

Despite assurances from the industry, concerns about BPA have arisen because numerous studies have found harmful effects in rats and mice in low doses comparable to the levels that humans are exposed and far below the acceptable level set by the EPA. The first such study was completed in March 1997 which found that low level exposure to BPA harms the prostate. Over the next 11 years, more than 100 studies have made possible connections between low doses of BPA and reproductive system malformation, breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, diabetes, early puberty, and behavioral problems. Of particular concern is the effect on fetuses, infants, and young children who may be most vulnerable to the effects and most exposed. In addition to having higher levels than adults, children take longer to get rid of BPA than adults. Because of the exposure to their developing systems, there is concern about the possible lasting effects of BPA on fetuses and young children. In response to these studies, the National Toxicology Program issued a report in 2008 stating that, while there is significant controversy over whether these low-dose tests can be extrapolated to assess the effects of BPA on humans, the possibility that BPA could negatively affect us cannot be entirely ruled out.

The Politics of the Debate

Here in the US, where a third of BPA is produced (nearly a million tons), the debate seems highly political. For years, the FDA maintained that BPA was safe despite admitting, in response to a congressional investigation in 2008, that the two studies upon which its conclusion was based were actually funded by the American Plastics Council. Talk about a conflict of interest! And an independent panel of scientific advisers commissioned by the FDA later that same year criticized the FDA for ignoring crucial studies and using flawed methods.

In fact, years earlier, another report funded by the American Plastics Council concluding that evidence for low-dose effects of BPA was weak was criticized for the same reason. The report was issued on the basis of a review of only 19 studies when, at the time, 115 studies concerning low-dose effects of BPA had been published, 94 of which reported significant effects. In 31 publications, significant effects occurred below the predicted safe level of 50 micrograms per kilogram per day, the current U.S. human exposure limit set by the EPA. A comprehensive review of outstanding literature published in August 2005 suggested a correlation between the source of funding and the conclusion drawn. Industry-funded studies tended to find no significant effects where over 90% of government-funded studies did. A similar review in 2007 by the Journal Sentinel came to the same conclusion. Many studies reporting no significant effects apparently used a strain of rat inappropriate for the study of estrogenic responses.

Recent Developments

Fast forward to earlier this year, and the FDA now agrees with the National Toxicology Program and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences that recent studies provide reason for some concern for the potential effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children. Yet it has stopped short of imposing a ban on BPA in children’s products. Instead, the FDA says that it recognizes substantial uncertainty in the interpretation of the studies and supports additional studies. One of the issues it cites with existing studies is the inability to reconcile findings of different studies because of different designs and testing methods.

A number of government-sponsored studies are now under way using uniform methods and strict guidelines to ensure that the results of different studies will be comparable, but results aren’t expected until at least 2012. A group of 33 scientists, most from universities and all of whom have studied BPA, have written to the FDA commissioner accusing the agency of stalling when over 900 studies exist already. And again, they raise concerns about flaws in the proposed studies, in particular the use of the appropriate strain of rat. The Endocrine Society also issued a statement in response to the FDA’s position stating that while they support the FDA’s continuing efforts to evaluate the safety of BPA, many of the existing studies of low-dose effects are well designed, heavily reviewed, NIH-funded work, and research that is “among the best in the world” whose results indicate effects below current safety levels. The Endocrine Society has urged the government to take a precautionary approach in making regulatory decisions rather than a wait-and-see approach and has requested that acceptable levels of BPA be re-evaluated.

In the meantime, the FDA says it is taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA by supporting industry actions to stop producing baby bottles and sippy cups with BPA. Never mind that the industry has already taken significant action in the past two years in response to consumer fear over BPA. Major manufacturers of baby bottles and sippy cups have stopped selling BPA-containing products, and many major retailers such as Walmart, Babies R Us, and Sears have stopped selling baby bottles with BPA.  It seems that the FDA is really just going to sit back and let consumers and the industry continue to drive the change. The FDA also says it is facilitating the development of alternatives to BPA for the linings of infant formula cans, but it hasn’t put a timeline on this. Guess what, though? Japan has already done it. Between 1998 and 2003, they replaced their epoxy linings mostly with PET film. Japanese risk assessors have found that virtually no BPA is detectable in canned foods or drinks now, and blood levels of BPA in people have declined dramatically.

Enacted and Pending Legislation

The big news as of late is that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed an amendment to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to ban BPA in food and drink containers which is set to be voted on this week. The EWG group is urging consumers to contact their senators and express their support for the amendment however, major industry players who currently support the Modernization Act are threatening to oppose the legislation if the BPA amendment gets added. They argue that regulatory agencies should rule on the safety of BPA and not Congress.

Meanwhile, several states have gone ahead and passed bans on BPA. In July 2010, NY State became the 7th state to ban BPA in children’s products joining Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Similar legislation has also been passed in Chicago and is being considered in numerous other states.

How Can You Reduce Your Child’s Exposure?

Until the government takes further action on BPA, it is up to us to reduce our exposure to BPA. Based on agency recommendations and studies identifying exposures, I’ve compiled this list of tips for reducing exposure to BPA for you and your children:

  • Breastfeed your infant. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding as the optimal source of nutrition for infants. When this is not an option, the FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods as they say the source of nutrition outweighs the risk of BPA exposure.
  • If you aren’t able to breastfeed, use powdered formula. In this 2010 study, BPA was detected in only 1 of 14 powder formula products analyzed. Note: The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that parents discuss any changes to your baby’s diet with your pediatrician.
  • Use BPA-free or glass bottles and sippy cups. As of January 2009, the six major U.S. bottle manufacturers no longer manufacture bottles or sippy cups containing BPA for the U.S. market. The website, ZRecommends, offers a great guide for choosing plastic products free of harmful chemicals.
  • Avoid Type 7 and Type 3 plastics. There are seven classes of plastics used in packaging. Type 7 is the catch-all class which includes polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins made from BPA. Type 3 (PVC) can also contain BPA as an antioxidant in plasticizers, substances added to hard plastics to increase flexibility and durability.

  • Avoid BPA while you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned products.
  • Store water in bottles free of BPA. Harvard University scientists published research showing that college students who drank cold beverages from polycarbonate sports bottles for just one week had 70% more BPA in their bodies than when they used stainless steel drink bottles.
  • Avoid microwaving food in polycarbonate plastic containers, putting plastics in the dishwasher, or using harsh detergents.
  • Pack lunches from home. A 2005-2006 survey found that consumption of soda, school lunches, and meals prepared outside the home was statistically significantly associated with higher urinary BPA levels.

One Final Note

BPA isn’t the only endocrine disrupting chemical – just the one that has captured all of our attention. The Endocrine Society issued a statement in 2009 reviewing the results of numerous studies on a variety of hormone disruptors, BPA being just one of them. Stay tuned as we highlight other chemicals of concern.

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