“Is that plastic container BPA-free?” A question such as this might be given a simple thought, but in a world conscientiously aware of its consumerism and global footprint, we often find ourselves perusing the latest health facts or curiously checking the labels of our kitchen containers to find ways to escape our dependence on plastic.
Discovered in the 1890s and widely used since the 1960s, bisphenol-A is a synthetic compound most commonly found in some of the consumer goods that we use. Its original purpose was to act as an added layer between metal cans and the food stored in them. As it grew in popularity -- largely in part because of its strength and durability -- and plastic food containers were developed, BPA was an ideal plastic source to cheaply manufacture. It also mimics the estrogen hormone. When mixed with other compounds it can produce polycarbonate plastics, a strong and resilient type of plastic. BPA routinely shows up in:
Plastic household containers
Feminine hygiene products
Dental filling sealants
Toiletries (e.g. deodorant, hair spray, nail polish)
In 2012, a research study conducted on monkeys revealed that BPA had adverse effects on reproduction using current human exposure levels of the chemical. Similarly, research in adult mice found a link to type 2 diabetes when exposed to certain levels of BPA. The chemical is effectively banned in nations such as Canada, the EU, China and Malaysia. The U.S. states of Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Nevada and Connecticut have established BPA limits in their use in canned goods and other products, but there is otherwise no federal regulations banning the use of BPA.
BPA’s Effect on the Body
Even more disturbing is their appearance in food products such as canned goods. The inner lining of cans (that white, elastic band surrounding the lid) contains BPA for the purpose of maintaining the life of the can and minimizing corrosion. This is not to minimize the effects of BPA in plastic containers. In the 1990’s Stanford University was among the first to recognize that BPA does not stop at the production process of a container. When containers are made with BPA, the chemical is not entirely sealed into the product. This allows it to seep into the foods or liquids that are placed in the container and ultimately consumed.
BPA disrupts the endocrine system. This system within our bodies is a collection of glands that produce hormones which regulate our metabolism, reproduction, growth and development -- all of which are especially critical to young children. There have been growing concerns among pregnant women and nursing mothers as high exposure to the chemical can cause miscarriage or birth defects.
Given these alarming statistics and the growing concern among advocacy groups, many consumer goods companies have adopted BPA-free products. Campbell Soup vowed to eliminate the BPA lining in its cans by mid-2017. The alternative is a lining made of polyester and acrylic. It is worth noting that while many have applauded companies that have moved away from BPA products, their alternative are not always a safer bet. Bisphenol S or BPS is most often used in place of BPA, but experts have said it is just as harmful, if not more so, than its evil cousin. Because BPA is known to potentially leach into foods from the plastic containers from which it is stored, BPS is thought to be less resistant.
To better understand the impact of BPA in the system, researchers at the University of Exeter tested the urine of 94 teenagers and found a whopping 86 percent of participants had traces of BPA in their digestive system. Why so high in teenagers? Professor Lorna Harries who led the project theorized it this way: “...one theory is because teenagers eat more junk food than the rest of the population and junk food is a particularly rich source of BPA.”
Did you catch that? Goods that are cheaply manufactured and have high purchase rates are often the culprit and because junk food can be so enticing, it is no wonder foods like this are found everywhere from school cafeterias to convenience stores.
In 2013, a University of Texas at Galveston found similar findings: Nearly 81 percent of Americans had detectable levels of BPS -- the cousin of BPA -- in its urine samples. Once again, it showed that while alternatives are used, these chemicals still manage to leach into our foods, thus having the potential to cause bodily harm.
There is ongoing debate about the risk of exposure to BPA. The Food and Drug Administration recently combed through numerous studies to determine what level of BPA was a human risk. Evidence was conflicting and therefore halted any consensus or firm policy. This complacency was not without backlash. In 2014, the FDA’s own Science Board determined it necessary to re-assess literature supporting BPA’s link to diseases such as cancer and growth and development. The reassessment is still under review.