What is BPA?
BPA is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are used to make a plastic containers that store food and beverages. Epoxy resins are used to coat the inside of metal products (e.g food cans, soft drink or beer cans), bottle tops and water supply lines. They may also be used in some dental sealants. BPA is also found in fast foods in levels that can exceed some canned foods.
BPA has been shown to leach into food and beverages stored in these plastic containers. From there it can enter the body. It is more likely to leach if the plastics are heated (e.g microwave safe plastic containers, water bottles left in the car) or hot food is poured into plastic ware (e.g baby bottles, plastic take away containers).
What does BPA do?
BPA is an endocrine disrupter and mimics the hormone Oestrogen in both men and women. It is particularly of concern for pregnant women (and their unborn fetuses), for babies, and for children because it could harm brain and reproductive development.
BPA can also interfere with other hormones, like testosterone, thyroid hormones, and hormones associated with maintaining normal body weight, like leptin.
BPA, therefore, may increase risk of certain cancers, reduce fertility, cause birth defects, affect our metabolism causing obesity and diabetes.
Since the Bisphenol A (BPA) scare, manufacturers have been replacing BPA with other compounds - Bisphenol S (BPS) or Bisphenol F (BPF).
Are we safe now because we have BPA free plastic ware / bottles?
First, BPA (or its replacement compounds) are also found on plastic and paper not used for food. e.g ‘thermal’ receipts that we get from supermarkets, credit card machines. While BPA used in plastics and can linings is found largely in a polymerized form like polycarbonate or PVC, the BPA applied to thermal paper is *free*. This 2017 study published in PLOS One journal studies the implications of dermal exposure to BPA. Furthermore, if we touch or consume food after handling the receipts without washing our hands, we could in addition ingest the compound that is present on the skin of our hands.
Second, animal studies find that a replacement compound (i.e BPS, BPF) may be equally harmful to human health. And once it enters the body it can affect cells in ways that parallel BPA. Even picomolar concentrations (i.e. less than one part per trillion) of BPS can disrupt a cell’s normal functioning and could potentially lead to the same effects as BPA.
Manufacturers put ‘BPA-free’ on the label, and this is true. The thing they neglected to tell you is that what they’ve substituted for BPA has not been tested for the same kinds of problems that BPA has been shown to cause. That’s a little bit sneaky.
Currently, no regulatory agency tests the toxicity of new materials before they are allowed on the market. We pay a premium for a ‘safer’ product that isn’t even safer. There are many types of bisphenols out there. Therefore, we are still in harm's ways even if manufacturers go from BPA to BPS or BPF or whatever the next one is
A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that almost all commercially available plastics that were tested leached oestrogenic chemicals. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more oestrogenic activity than did BPA-containing products.
There will be years before studies start suggesting the BPS/BPF is as dangerous as BPA. When this happens, the industry will probably move on to the next chemical, and this will take another few years, if not decades to prove that too is as dangerous.
So what can we do about it?
Lets be honest. We cannot avoid plastics. They are everywhere. We can however choose to reduce our exposure to BPA (or BPS/BPF) by following certain guidelines:
- Avoid plastic bags to keep fresh produce or food items.
- Avoid heating/cooking food in plastic. Do not put polycarbonate plastics in the microwave (this includes not microwaving ready to eat frozen meals in their original container) or in dishwasher, because the heat may break them down over time and allow BPA to leach into foods. Heat the food on stove – it also preserves the nutritious quality of food
- Reduce your use of canned foods.
- Reorganise your kitchen. Replace plastic with glass, porcelain or stainless steel for foods, including liquids.
- If you are in a cafe and will be consuming food straight after, then either avoid taking or handling receipts printed on thermal paper or put them in pocket or purse as soon as possible and wash your hands prior to consuming food. Do not give thermal paper receipts to small children/babies - residue or sometimes even the paper itself may end up in their mouth. Always wash hands prior to consuming food.
And remember, our exposure to BPA/BPS/BPF can be cumulative. We may be exposed to small amounts (often the most cited reason for its non-toxicity) but the total exposure may quickly add up if small amounts come from multiple sources.
Pregnant women and babies/small children are especially vulnerable to even a small exposure.