What is BPA?
BPA (also known as bisphenol A or 4,4’-dihydroxy-2,2-diphenylpropane) is an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and resins. It’s most commonly used in the production of polycarbonate, a rigid, transparent and durable plastic frequently used to make containers that store food and beverages, including water bottles, baby bottles, plastic plates and storage containers. BPA is also found in the epoxy resins used to make the protective lining for food and beverage cans, thermal paper (found in, for example, receipts and parking tickets), and dozens of other everyday products, including sports equipment, medical and dental devices, dental filling sealants, CDs and DVDs, household electronics, eyeglass lenses, foundry castings and the lining of water pipes. This wide ranging applicability has led BPA to become one of the highest volume chemicals produced in the world, with over 8 billion pounds (3.6 billion kilograms) produced each year, releasing over 100 tons into the atmosphere annually.
Why it matters
BPA can leach into the food and drink stored in materials containing the substance. Due to its widespread use, it’s highly likely that you’ve consumed BPA at some point in your life. In fact, a study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) found BPA in 93% of the urine sampled from people 6 years and older. BPA has also been found in human serum, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid and placental tissue.
Concern over BPA has been growing in recent years with regulators in a number of countries opening investigations into whether BPA should be allowed. The US Food and Drug Administration contends that (at the time of writing) “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods” and notes that it ended authorization of the use of BPA in baby bottles and infant formula packaging on grounds of market abandonment, not safety. The EU, on the other hand, has classified BPA as “a substance that has toxic effects on our ability to reproduce”.
Many countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Japan and those in the EU, have banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and other polycarbonate items produced for babies and toddlers. The EU has also banned thermal paper.
In addition to concerns over the impact of BPA on human health, studies indicate that BPA is “a chemical of potential concern for the ecosystem” and has been found to negatively impact both vertebrates and invertebrates. As with many chemicals, runoff into rivers and lakes are a major area of concern and studies have paid particular attention to the effect of BPA on aquatic environments.
Why you might want to choose BPA-free products
There are a number of health concerns associated with BPA. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS): “BPA may mimic hormones and interfere with the endocrine system of glands, which release hormones around the body. Some scientists think that if it interferes with sex hormones, this could affect puberty or the menopause or cause cancers that are related to hormones. Those calling for a ban suggest that it may be a factor in a rising number of human illnesses, such as breast cancer, heart disease and genital birth defects.”
In response to growing consumer demands for BPA-free products, manufacturers have started using substitute chemicals, the most widely used of which is BPS (bisphenol S). There are concerns that BPS is no safer than BPA and recent studies have found that BPS “is as hormonally active as BPA and, like BPA, it interferes with the endocrine (hormone) system in ways that may produce harmful effects, such as obesity, cancer and neurological disorders”.
To be considered BPA-free, a product:
- Cannot be made from, or otherwise use, materials that contain BPA (bisphenol A)
What you can do
If you are looking to decrease your exposure to BPA there are few things you can do:
- Wherever possible, choose plastic-free alternatives made from materials such as glass, porcelain or stainless steel. This is particularly relevant for containers used to hold food or liquids.
- If you do need or want to buy items in a plastic container select one that is BPA-free. Similarly, if you can, reduce your use of canned foods, opting instead for items such as soups and cooked beans in cardboard cartons.
- Heat substantially increases the rate of BPA leaching so if you do find yourself with polycarbonate plastic containers, don’t microwave, use to store hot liquids or foods, leave outside in the sun, or wash them in hot water.
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