Bisphenol-A (BPA) has come under scrutiny concerning its potentially harmful effects on babies and young children related to its hormone-disrupting properties. Bisphenol-A is actually an artificial estrogen, but it is bonded together in a chain of molecules to create the plastic called polycarbonate. Most major U.S. baby bottle manufacturers use the BPA chemical in their production (such as Avent, Dr. Brown’s, Evenflo, Gerber and Playtex), as well as food-storage containers and toys.
The first evidence of BPA’s estrogen-like abilities came from experiments that involved feeding it to rats in the 1930’s. Bisphenol-A later became a normal part of plastics manufacturing when chemists discovered that it could be polymerized to form polycarbonate plastic. Recently, scientific studies have shown that the unstable BPA bond will allow the chemical to leach into food or beverages in contact with the plastic.
Growing demand for polycarbonate products has driven the rapidly expanding multibillion-dollar market for Bisphenol A. It has become one of the highest-volume chemicals in commercial production. U.S. industries manufacture and import approximately 75,000 chemicals, 3,000 of them at over a million pounds per year. BPA is one of the top 50 chemicals in production in the United States, generates billions of dollars for the plastics industry, which produces about 2.5 billion pounds of the chemical per year.
The Bisphenol-A Debate
Plastics manufacturers are up in arms and are pushing to convince the public that Bisphenol-A is safe. The debate continues to escalate as a result of numerous scientific studies demonstrating a link between low levels of BPA and a laundry list of illnesses, including cancer. Proponents of Bisphenol-A continue to hold fast to the opinion that low level doses of BPA do not cause noticeable harm to anyone, including babies. Plastic manufacturers point to older research studies performed in the 1980’s that determined safe levels of BPA to be less than 50 milligrams per kilogram body weight per day. Unfortunately, this level of exposure is still significantly higher than the low doses that some studies have shown to cause adverse health effects. Current research shows that BPA is just as powerful as estradiol (the common human form of estrogen) and is capable of disrupting endocrine cell communication all the way down to 0.23 parts per trillion.
Liza Gross, a science writer with the Public Library of Sciences (PLoS) wrote an excellent synopsis of the behind the scenes debate currently taking place. In her article “The Toxic Origins of Disease” (June 2007), she states, “Faced with conflicting reports of harm from a chemical in mass circulation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to review the evidence on Bisphenol-A. In its initial review in 2001, the NTP panel decided there was “credible evidence” that low doses of BPA can cause effects on specific endpoints, but that the effects had not been ‘conclusively established as a general or reproducible finding.’ This equivocal conclusion did not sit well with industry groups, so the American Plastics Council (APC) commissioned its own review from Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA), which has received funding from all the major BPA producers and their trade groups.”
Gross continues, “In a 2005 commentary, Fred vom Saal [a developmental biologist at the University of Missouri] and Claude Hughes, a reproductive endocrinologist who had served on the HCRA panel, argued that the report was already obsolete when it came out. By the end of 2004, they had identified 115 published studies on low doses of Bisphenol-A. They also found a troubling trend. Ninety percent of government studies found significant effects of Bisphenol A at doses below the EPA’s lowest adverse effect level, but not a single [plastics] industry study found any effect.”
Gross goes on to say, “Researchers say endocrine-disrupting chemicals can permanently harm the developing organism and may even promote obesity. But the chemical industry doesn’t want you to believe them. The chemical industry has defended its products by attacking the credibility of scientists reporting ill effects. This strategy involves hiring consultants and commissioning reviews that dispute the findings or minimize potential human risks from the chemical under study.”
Outcomes of Exposure to Bisphenol-A in Children
Researchers also have shown that even low levels of estrogen-mimicking BPA are harmful to animals and people, especially babies and young children. Bisphenol-A may cause adverse health effects, such as:
- Increase in obesity and diabetes
- Interference with the normal development of a fetus
- Stimulation of mammary gland development, which is a risk factor for breast cancer
- Early onset of puberty, and stimulation of mammary gland development in females
- Changes in gender-specific behavior
- Changes in hormones, including decreased testosterone
- Increased prostate size
- Decreased sperm production
- Altered immune function
- Behavioral effects including hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness, impaired learning and other changes in behavior
Bisphenol-A it has also been used in manufacturing other items such as plastic coating for children’s teeth to prevent cavities, as a coating in metal cans to prevent the metal from contact with food contents, as the plastic in food containers, refrigerator shelving, water bottles, returnable containers for juice, milk and water, micro-wave ovenware and eating utensils, fungicide, antioxidant, flame retardant, rubber chemical, and polyvinyl chloride stabilizer. BPA contamination is also widespread in the environment. For example, BPA can be measured in rivers, estuaries, and sediment. It is quite persistent and under normal conditions in the environment it does not readily degrade.
Taking Action: Removing Bisphenol-A From Your Child’s Environment In their comprehensive report “Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns” the Environmental Working Group summarizes the quandary well, “The vast majority of chemicals in use today do not have anywhere near sufficient data needed to assess their safety, particularly their safety for the unborn baby or young child.”
This remarkable information showcases the vast difference in findings, and begs the question – do we continue using polycarbonate plastics while we wait for more damning evidence, or do we take action now based on what researchers, who are not funded by the plastics industry, have brought to light?
Successfully changing one’s lifestyle habits does take a fair amount of effort, and often a financial commitment. Even so, after weighing what evidence we do have, I choose to take action now. The evidence is just too great to ignore.
Tips for Making Preventative Changes
HealthyChild.org has done an excellent job of arming us with the knowledge we need to begin making some foundational changes. Here are a few tips from their website to help you get started:
- Avoid baby bottles and sippy cups made of polycarbonate plastic. Choose alternative baby feeding gear made of glass, polyethylene, polypropylene (recycling symbol #’s 1, 2 or 5), polyamide or polyethersulfone (PES). There are many safer bottle and sippy cup options available. You can find a very helpful BPA Free Bottle and Sippy Cup Cheat Sheet at Safemama.
- Look for the recycling code (#1-7) on plastic bottles. If unlabelled, call the manufacturer to ask about the plastic used. Try to avoid #3 PVC, #6 PS, and #7 polycarbonate.
- Avoid heating breast milk and infant formula on the stove or in the microwave in plastic; dangerous chemicals are more likely to leach when you heat in plastic containers.
- Avoid plastic bottles that have decorations printed on the inside. These run into formula when it’s been heated. Also, avoid disposable nursers, as the plastic bags may leak or burst.
- Choose fresh, frozen and dried foods over those that are canned. (Metal cans are lined with plastic.)
- Make plastic your last choice: buy and store food in glass, ceramic or metal containers, as most plastic types have been reported to leak chemicals into food.
- Avoid dental sealants, which may contain BPA, for children’s baby teeth.
- Do not heat plastics, especially if they contain fatty foods. Heating fatty food in plastics can cause greater leaching.
- Microwave in glass or ceramic only. Do not use plastic wraps, plastic cutlery and dinnerware (such as plastic plate holders).
- If using plastic storage containers, make sure hot food items have cooled before placing them in the container.
There are safer alternatives on the market now, so there is no reason to continue using a chemical that has a high potential to cause harm. Why wait for the government to ban BPA in five or ten years?
Copyright, Alicia Voorhies 2007.