Raise your hand if you haven’t heard someone rant about BPA.
There’s probably 1-2 of you, if even.
And why not? With rising rates of obesity and fertility issues in America, plastics seem to me to be one of the central focuses for consumer health groups. Words like perfluorinated compounds, xenoestrogens, and Bisphenol-A have pretty much become household names. Somehow in that tangle, BPA became the king to demonize.
For those that don’t know , BPA is an estrogen-like compound used to make plastics, such as baby bottles and Tupperware. Any chemical that can leech into the food supply of an infant is going to cause mass hysteria, no doubt about it. Infants are understandably smaller and weigh less than their adult counterparts, meaning a safe amount in adults may not be safe in newborns.
Historical studies have in fact found some abnormalities due to BPA. One study found pregnant mice fed BPA produced male offspring with larger prostate glands. Alternatively, BPA has been tied to abnormalities in mouse eggs and sperm, increased incidence of breast cancer, and early onset of puberty.
But don’t jump the gun just yet.
The problem isn’t so much what harms are posed to infants, it’s whether those harms apply to adults. Every Nalgene-loving Kleen-canteen promoting nature lover has probably heard the “dangers of BPA”, but if the dangers only apply to infants it’s kind of a moot point unless we’re talking baby bottles. I mean, alcohol is significantly more dangerous for infants, but how many adults still have a beer or glass of wine every night?
A second issue, is that most safety studies aren’t actually done on humans, but little furry critters.
Are you a mouse? If so I applaud your reading skills, if not I’m glad that’s out of the way.
One of the reasons rodents are often tested is the similarity between their brain chemistry and ours. If a drug has a certain effect on rats brains, its likely to have a similar effect on human brains. Their metabolism though, isn’t like ours. Our livers are larger and for that reason handle chemicals very differently. This is what we see with BPA. Studies have shown human plasma to consist mostly of BPA-glucuronide whereas rat plasma show greater concentrations of free BPA after exposure. Free BPA is much more active than the former.
What does this mean? It’s very likely we handle the chemical in a safer way than our rodent friends. So much for all those safety studies.
There really is no clear consensus on the use of the substance. The W.H.O. stated that implementing regulations would be premature given the lack of clear evidence. In the E.U., a recent ban on use of BPA in baby bottles has been implemented, though the official consensus states the substance doesn’t pose serious risk to adults.
In many countries, just a proposed ban resulted in companies removing the chemical from their infant products. It seems that corporations are more scared of negative public image than the actual health effects.
This doesn’t have the benefits you’d think. Many companies are simply replacing the polymer with other plastics which themselves could carry dangers. For example, one study noted “About 70% of plastic items tested positive for estrogenic activity…even those marketed as BPA-free” (source).
And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. In addition to BPA, common household items have a variety of estrogen-like ingredients. There’s 4-MBC found in many sunscreen lotions, BHA used as a food preservative, Red No. 3 the common food coloring, PCBs found in old paints (though it’s now banned), and parabens used in most hand lotions. All these have shown some estrogenic effect, but you don’t hear outcry for those do you?
What is realistically necessary I think, is for greater research on effects of these chemicals. Plastics are far from simple, a child’s toy for instance can contain literally thousands of polymers, maybe a few of which have been extensively studied. I’m not saying BPA is good for you by any means, but that sensationalism for just one chemical is like throwing on blinders to the rest. We spend so much time regulating the things we put in our bodies, it seems a little strange not to be as strict for the containers they come in.
Be good to each other.
– Joshua Iufer, RD