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Calling a Toxin a Toxin: BPA Gets the Name It Deserves

Frances Beinecke

Posted April 17, 2008

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It’s been a bad week for bisphenol-A, and that’s a good thing. Not one but two government agencies came out for the first time publicly saying that this chemical--found in plastic water bottles, canned food, and numerous baby products--could harm human health.

This is personally gratifying for me. As I have written about before, I had breast cancer several years ago, and breast cancer is what is known as a hormone-sensitive disease. It is fueled in part by estrogen. Women at risk for breast cancer are advised to avoid ingesting estrogen, such as excess amounts of soy (which has a natural form of estrogen) or hormone replacement therapy (which includes estrogen).  

BPA is a synthetic form of estrogen. It was developed in the 1930s by scientists looking for hormone replacement drugs. BPA was sidelined in favor of another estrogen, DES, which of course turned out to be all-too toxic after a generation of women gave birth to daughters with reproductive defects.

But BPA didn’t die. It resurfaced as a building block of some of the most popular plastics, including the beloved Bakelite in the 1950s and 1960s and the ubiquitous polycarbonate today.

The problem is the stuff doesn’t stay inside the plastic. It leaches out into food and water. In other words, we are likely taking in small doses of estrogen when we drink from a Nalgene water bottle or make spaghetti sauce from canned tomatoes. Worse, our babies could be receiving doses when they use most plastic baby bottles or drink formula made from a can.

What does this extra estrogen lead to? A decade of research has shown that BPA causes abnormalities during fetal development. In lab animals, it has been shown to feminize males. Most alarming to me, it has been found to cause the early onset of puberty (a risk factor for breast cancer, because it means a prolonged exposure to estrogen) and to promote pre-cancerous changes in the breast. Many studies show these effects at low levels – near or at the levels that come out of food cans or bottles.

NRDC has been working to get government agencies to take this chemical seriously for years. In fact, it wasn’t until NRDC blew the whistle on the U.S. government for using industry-paid scientists to determine the toxicity of BPA that the EPA fired its tainted contractors, started over again, and came to more objective conclusions.

On Monday, the U.S. National Toxicology Program became the first federal agency in the world to express concern regarding this chemical’s potential to cause harm to fetuses, infants and children (see my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon’s blog post).

And on Wednesday, it became clear that Health Canada will likely declare bisphenol-A (BPA) a toxin, which sets it on the road to a partial or complete ban in food-related containers.

We are happy for the vindication of things we have been saying for years, but we won’t sit around. Now it’s time to take action!

NRDC will work to first get BPA out of baby products. Then we will turn to outher sources of exposure, including the lining of other food and soda cans, and polycarbonate water bottles--the ones marked #7.

In the meantime, here are some steps you can take. 

  1. If you have a newborn, opt for the baby bottles now being manufactured without BPA. Click here for a list of BPA-free bottles, including some you can buy at Whole Foods.
  2. Opt for glass jars and bottles instead of cans when buying soda, preserved vegetables, or soup.
  3. Buy packaged soups and broth in cardboard “brick” cartons, which are made of safer materials.
  4. Limit your consumption of canned soda and canned food during pregnancy.
  5. Avoid plastic jugs labeled #7, especially if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
  6. Don’t allow your children to have dental sealants made from BPA applied to their teeth, and don’t have these sealants applied to your teeth while you are pregnant.
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MG TorkApr 18 2008 03:28 PM

Dear Frances,

Thanks for posting this, I've heard lots of bits of information on BPA lately. One article I read indicated that BPA may leach out of polycarbonate bottles when exposed to high heat - 150 degrees fahrenheit and higher - which meant that parents pouring hot water into bottles could be inadvertently destabilizing the chemical structure of polycarbonate, releasing BPA into the formula - hence, the specific danger to infants and children cited in news stories.

As I read your post, I am concerned about whether or not my own using a Nalgene polycarbonate bottle on my hikes poses any risk.

The websites and indicate that for my type use, there is no scientific evidence of any danger.

A few questions that come to mind are:

Under what conditions does BPA leaches into our food/beverages from containers?

Is it isolated to situations where HOT water or ambient conditions heat containers above a certain level?

Are there published, scientific studies available detailing what specific conditions cause leaching of BPA?

Is the risk level statistically significant as a causal factor for introducing endocrine disrupters, at unsafe leveles, into the human body when polycarbonate bottles are used with cool-room-temperature water for hiking, plain drinking water, etc...?

Thanks for any links you can provide to specific studies that detail not the media hysteria but the science-based facts about when polycarbonate is/is not safe to use.

MG Tork

Robert FryApr 21 2008 02:08 PM

I have drank out of and used plastic containers for my own water consumption for over 18 years. I drink about 1 gallon of boiled then filtered water a day. I filter it into a brita plastic container. Over 1 year ago I came down with bladder cancer, this is a aggressive one. I had a colostimy, a kidney drainage bag and nerve damage from the waist down. I had a 7-11 refillable container I used for over 18 years. Rewashing the containers all the time. Now I am disabled and can not work, trying to regain my strenth and still battling with the same cancer. Can this be brought on from BPA?

Frances BeineckeApr 22 2008 04:56 PM

Thanks for your excellent questions. I will address them separately.

First, Robert. I am sorry to hear about your health struggles. I asked the physicians on staff about your concerns, and to their knowledge BPA has not been associated with bladder cancer. And none of the federal agencies has recognized a link.

Your choice of Brita is a good one. Brita pitchers are not made of polycarbonate plastic, the plastic that leaches BPA. The clear bottom part which holds the filtered water is made from 100% styrene acrylonitrile and the reservoir part of the pitcher (as well as the filter canister which goes inside) is made of 100% polypropylene.

Now, Marcus. It’s especially likely that beverages stored in polycarbonate plastic contain some amount of BPA when 1) they contain acidic substances or 2) whn they are stored at warm temperatures or for prolonged periods of time. Containers that are older and have become discolored or cracked are also likely to leach more BPA.

A better option for storing drinks is to use an unlined stainless steel container or to use another type of plastic container, such as polypropylene (used in the Brita), which does not contain BPA.

I checked with NRDC health specialists about scientific studies, and this is what they recommended. Here's a study that found a link between leaching and higher temperatures.

And this study concluded that older bottles leach more at both warm and hot temperatures.

Also, keep in mind that the average person is probably getting more BPA by eating canned food and drinking canned soda than from drinking out of a polycarbonate beverage container.

Marcus TorkApr 23 2008 01:05 PM

Frances, thanks for that information and those links. It appears that the point of focus is BPA exposure for those with developing systems (in my 30s, I'm done developing :) increased by polycarbonate containers exposed to high-heat via cleaning and heated food/beverage.

In your personal opinion, would it be reasonable for me to assume that I can safely use polycarbonate water bottles - given that I don't eat much canned food and avoid soda canned or not, and that my polycarbonate bottle is neither heated (cleaned with warm soapy water in my sink) nor filled with anything but room-temperature or cold, neutral pH drinking water?

Thanks again for your response.

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