This post may contain affiliate links. See here for full details
Bisphenol-a, also known as “BPA,” gets a lot of hype these days. In fact, go to the store today you’ll find “BPA-free” labels on pretty much any plastic item you can find!
If you’re a parent, this fact likely isn’t anything new to you. I’m sure you’ve already come across the issue of the “mysterious” BPA.
But what actually causes all the hype? In fact, what is BPA? Why exactly should we be concerned about this supposedly evil molecule? And why did little ol’ me have the guts before to suggest that part of the reason you should ditch canned goods is because of its presence?
If I’m going to suggest such a drastic change to your lifestyle, I at least owe you some solid reasoning. So let’s talk about it:
1-) What is BPA?
BPA is a fairly small, simple molecule by chemistry standards. It looks like this:
BPA was first synthesized in 1891. In the 1940s manufactures started using BPA to produce strong “polycarbonate” plastics and epoxy resins for lining metal cans. Due to the strength and lightweight nature of these plastics, all sorts of products containing BPA became widely available including medical equipment, sports safety equipment, and eyeglasses. The epoxy resins used to line canned goods prevented foods from interacting with the metal, thus increasing their shelf life.
2-) Why is BPA a concern now?
In the 1930s (before BPA introduction into plastics) scientists discovered that BPA mimics estrogen. Estrogen is an important hormone present in BOTH men and women that affects a variety of biological functions including (but not limited to):
- Sexual function and fertility
- Cardiovascular health
- Brain health
- Bone development and health
- Prostate health
- Metabolic health
Without any further information, you can hopefully see that maintaining proper estrogen balance/function is important your overall health!
Unfortunately, BPA interacts with receptors1 involved in endocrine (hormone) health, including (but again, not necessarily limited to):
- Estrogen Receptor alpha (EEα)
- Estrogen Receptor beta (EEβ)
- Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated receptors (PPARs)
- Estrogen Related Receptors (ERRs)
- Pregnane X Receptor (PXR)
- Aryl Hydrocarbon Receptor (AHR)
The point here is not to know all the science behind BPA’s biological activity, but to realize that its biological activity is widespread. BPA does not interact equally with all of these receptors (FYI “receptors” are a class of protein), and the short- and long-term health effects of the interactions individually likely varies. Nonetheless, BPA has been associated with a variety of health issues including issues of high concern such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and ADHD.
For an idea of the health effects associated with BPA, you can read a 2015 review2 which has a long list of animal studies that found correlations between BPA and neurological effects (and a few that didn’t find relationships). Of course, if you feel unconvinced because most of these studies are on animals, I recommend reading this3 2013 24-page review on the effects of BPA on human health or this4 (much smaller) review on the environmental impacts of BPA.
3-) The good, the bad, and the ugly
Fortunately, BPA quickly metabolizes and releases from our bodies. In other words, most of the BPA in your system will be eliminated quickly when you reduce your exposure.
On the other hand, BPA is everywhere and it is therefore difficult to completely eliminate your exposure. In addition the long-term effects of BPA exposure are less understood than the short term effects and what constitutes a “toxic” concentration is controversial. Finally, exact individual exposure remains unclear (and likely varies).
I personally believe that-as a result of these uncertainties-legal standards will be slow to change. It is therefore our responsibility as parents, caregivers, and/or family members to know where BPA exists and how to reduce our exposure.
Here’s the catch: BPA does have an important role in keeping plastics clear (instead of cloudy) and equipment strong… these are important characteristics in certain medical and safety equipment (including Kevlar vests) ! So while I don’t want my son to develop female characteristics from exposure to synthetic estrogenic chemicals, I also want to know that the helmet he wears when he rides his bike will properly protect him.
Why not then just switch out BPA with an alternative? It’s unfortunately not that simple…the main alternatives, such as BPS, are less extensively studied. However, the research that does exist for these alternatives does not suggest that they are safer than BPA. Bisguaiacol-F (or “BGF”)- a compound derived from lignin- may be a promising alternative to BPA, but research on BGF safety and effectiveness is ongoing.
4-) Where is BPA found?
About 10 billion pounds of BPA were produced in 2012. TEN BILLION! So basically….it’s everywhere! In fact, it’s one of the most commonly produced chemicals. Here is a short list of items where BPA lives:
- Canned foods
- Thermal paper (receipts, meat packaging labels)
- Money (as a result of people with BPA on their hands touching it)
- Eye glasses
- CD and DVD cases
- Safety equipment (helmets, etc.)
- Some baby bottles/sippy cups (mostly produced before 2012)
- Electronic equipment
- Dental fillings
- Medical equipment
- Some plastics with recycle codes 7 (polycarbonate) or 3 (PVC-polyvinyl chloride)
5-) Should you minimize BPA exposure? How?
Because BPA has known negative health consequences (even if only found with high levels) reducing exposure is a good idea for everyone. However, babies, children, and pregnant/breastfeeding women tend to be most sensitive BPA’s effects, and people in these categories should be even more diligent in reducing their exposure.
Fortunately you can easily reduce your exposure with some small changes, such as:
- Washing your hands after handling receipts (or declining a receipt altogether)
- Washing your hands after handling money
- Using glass baby bottles
- Buying fresh food (or food packaged in Tetra Packs or SIG Combibloc) over canned
- Avoiding plastics with recycling codes 3 or 7 (or items packaged in these plastics)
At the end of the day….
I’ll be honest, I assumed BPA as “the enemy” before researching for this article. But now I’m more torn. As a scientist (even if somewhat rusty 😉 ) I understand that BPA’s estrogenic activity is much lower than other compounds and it is quickly eliminated from our bodies. The real problem may lie in the concentrations: we and the environment are potentially overexposed because of its widespread use. Importantly, the alternatives (BPS, BPF, BHPF) have been studied less extensively and may not be any safer than BPA.
But as a mother I prefer not to take my chances. While I recognize that my family will never fully eliminate their exposure to BPA, I believe it is my job to reduce their exposure. As such, we rarely-never buy canned goods and only store food and drinks in glass. While I do use/hold on to receipts for redeeming rebates on my phone, I am careful to keep them out of the reach of Little Grasshopper and always wash my hands after handling them.
On the other hand, I would NEVER tell anyone-including my own kids- not to wear a bike helmet because it happens to have BPA in it.
Do you try to reduce your BPA exposure? How? Comment below with your tips and opinions! And don’t forget to share if you found this helpful!
For more reading:
Internet Discussions Linked in This Post and Other Discussions on BPA :
- Environmental Working Group Timeline of BPA. Interesting timeline on the history of BPA from the perspective of a group that opposes the use of BPA.
- Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. A group that defends the use of BPA.
- Profile of Steve Hentges on Science 2.0. Steve Hentges is a pro-BPA Chemist and Director of the BPA Global Group (see above). If you’re looking for the arguments for using BPA, you can read his opinions on BPA and BPA research here.
- Post with simplified findings of over 50 studies. A good place to view one-sentence summaries on many BPA research publications all in one place.
- American Chemical Society Article on BGS. BGS is a potential replacement for BPA made from paper making waste.
- Information on Estrogen
- Newsweek article on BPA