Pick up almost any reusable water bottle these days and the first thing you’re bound to see on the packaging is “BPA-Free.” Sounds great, whatever that means, right? Sadly, like the labels you read on your food, the labels on plastic containers can be just as misleading.
Let’s start with what, exactly, BPA-Free means.
BPA is short for “Bisphenol A,” which is a synthetically derived chemical compound which, according to the Mayo Clinic, can be found in “polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.” (polycarbonate plastics are used in making food containers and packaging, epoxy resins are in the linings of food and drink cans) BPA has been used since the late 1950’s as a hardening agent in plastic to increase shatter resistance, high heat resistance, electrical resistance, and visual clarity (it is a colorless chemical), according to National Geographic. Because of these qualities, BPA has previously been used in a wide range of plastics – including most plastic food packaging as well as to coat the interior of metal cans.
In 2004, a study completed by the CDC showed a detectable level of BPA in adults and children above the age of six. (BPA in packaging leaches into the foods which we then consume, transferring that BPA into our own systems.) While the FDA still maintains that the levels are within what they consider to be safe and acceptable ranges, they did change their regulations in 2012 to no longer allow the use of BPA in “baby bottles, sippy cups, and infant formula packaging.” The FDA maintains that this is because the industry at large has abandoned the use of BPA in these items (due to consumer demand), as reported by the American Chemistry Council. Their own studies, as self-reported, indicate that primates metabolize low levels of BPA at a faster rate than rodents, and that there are no effects of BPA in the low-dose range in their short-term studies. They are still conducting a long-term study in rats to address questions raised by other independent studies.
What do those other studies indicate? According to the Scientific American, BPA can mimic estrogen in the body, which can “harm brain and reproductive development in fetuses, infants, and children.” (A fact which has been known in the scientific community since 1936, well before its wide-spread use in plastics and the food industry according to the Environment and Human Health Journal.) The European Food Safety Authority‘s studies and recommendations have largely mirrored the FDA’s (they have banned BPA use in baby bottles), but they have also launched subsequent studies to take into account non-dietary sources of BPA, including dust and air pollution, in their recommended safety levels. These studies have identified adverse effects on the livers, kidneys, and mammary glands from the intake of BPA and have subsequently reduced their recommended levels of “BPA from .05mg/kg/bw/day to .005mg/kg/bw/day”. (mg/kg/bw/day = millograms per killogram of body weight per day) Other studies published by the American Medical Association in 2008 suggest a possible link between BPA urinary levels “and increased occurrences of heart disease and diabetes.” Other studies have suggested a connection between low-dose BPA exposure and an increase in ADHD, autism, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and “hormonally mediated cancers, such as prostate and breast cancers” as reported by National Geographic. According to the Environment and Human Health Journal, over 100 studies have been reported since 1997 which show these effects on rodent health at low-dose levels of BPA even lower than those currently approved for use, and the Endocrine Society has come out publicly disputing the FDA’s findings and presenting findings which indicate that BPA effects may actually be multi-generational.
All that makes BPA-Free containers and food packaging sound like a pretty good idea, even if its just a “better safe than sorry” idea while the scientific community conducts more long term studies on the effects of low-levels of BPA in the human body.
I know there is always a but, isn’t there?
BPA-Free plastics and can coatings are made with BPS, bisphenol S (which is an analog of BPA, meaning it is structurally similar), or other untested chemical compounds. According to Mother Jones Journal and Mercola, chemical compounds “are presumed safe until proven otherwise, and companies are rarely required to collect or disclose chemical-safety data.” And many of these compounds also mimic estrogen. So just because a water bottle is marked BPA-Free, does not mean that you are drinking from a “nonestrogenic product.” In fact, BPS specifically has been found to be “less biodegradable and more heat-stable and photo-resistant, than BPA” according to Mercola, meaning it is potentially even more likely to leach into foods than BPA with just as many potential negative impacts on our bodies.
So how do you avoid the whole question all together? The easiest (and hardest) thing to do is simply to avoid plastic in contact with your food whenever possible.
Cooking at home with whole foods purchased at the farmer’s market is a great way to avoid the plastic packaging of processed or pre-prepared foods.
Canning your own vegetables in-season to eat year-round is another.
Switching your cooking utensils out for wooden utensils eliminates possible transfer while cooking over high heats with them. (And the Downtown Farmer’s Market has a great vendor who sells wooden spatulas and spoons!)
Use glass containers for leftovers as well as for taking your lunch to work. Rubbermaid has a good line of glass containers of all sizes. The lids are still plastic, but those should have minimal contact with food and can be removed when heating.
Switch out your trusty plastic water bottle for a glass one. I found some at Target a few months ago that have proven to be rather durable, but you could also use the latchtop/fliptop resuable bottles more commonly used for home-brewing of beer or kombucha.
National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/sya-bpa/
National Geographic: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/geopedia/Bisphenol_A
Environmental and Human Health, INC: http://www.ehhi.org/reports/plastics/bpa_health_effects.shtml
National Center for Biotechnology Information: