I was fortunate to hear about BPA way back in 2010ish, when the “scandal” (I’ll call it) first broke. I was fresh out of undergrad and was working at part-time at a health food store, with a part-time editorial internship at a natural health magazine. No surprise: I was hearing about BPA left, right, and centre. At the store, I spoke to concerned customers about it. At the magazine, I edited articles about it by science writers, which meant fact-checking everything by reading scientific articles. I was in BPA-land!
Please note that I am not a health professional, scientist, or expert. Always seek professional help for your health concerns or questions.
A decade later and there are still headlines about the notorious chemical, as well as its alternatives. Progress has been made, but I’d argue that it’s not enough.
It’s extremely important to keep in mind that reducing your reducing your exposure to BPA (and its alternatives) is an issue of privilege. BPA-free alternatives often cost more and are less accessible. Plus, those who handle BPA the most (such as cashiers) are typically in low-paying jobs, and are women. What’s even worse is that typically, those with the most exposure are those who are more vulnerable to its hormone-disrupting effects: young people and women.
That’s why pushing for BPA to be banned is so important: we need to get to the root of the problem.
For those not familiar with it, BPA (Bisphenol A) is a chemical used in the production of certain plastics and resins, including hard, clear polycarbonate plastics. It has been in use since the 1960s. In the following slides I hope to explain some of the problems with it, where it’s found, and how we can try to avoid it. I hope it’s helpful, and as usual, I love to hear your thoughts.
What is it?
BPA (Bisphenol A) is a chemical used in the production of certain plastics and resins, including hard, clear polycarbonate plastics. It has been in use since the 1960s.
What’s the problem?
BPA exerts estrogen-like activity and is considered an endocrine (hormone) disruptor. Studies have linked it to male and female infertility, hormone-dependent tumours, and disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome. It has also been linked in scientific research to other diseases, including diabetes and obesity.
BPA is considered toxic. It is allowed to be used because it is considered safe at low levels by Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration.
Where can you find it?
It’s often (but not always!) found in polycarbonate, and #7 plastics.
- baby bottles and sippy cups (older versions)
- CDs and DVDs
- eyeglass lenses
- the lining of aluminum cans or bottles
- the inside of jar lids
- thermal paper (receipts)
- dental fillings
- recycled paper
- some medical devices
I won’t go into detail for every source, but I’ll go through a few examples.
BPA in baby bottles
Around 2009, the news about BPA hit the news outlets, with parents in particular panicking after learning that this toxic substance was found in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. Studies at the time showed that 95% of Canadians had measurable amounts of BPA in their urine.
In 2010, BPA was banned in baby bottles and sippy cups in Canada, with the US following a couple of years later. The Canadian watchdog environmental group Environmental Defence was instrumental in this action.
BPA in canned goods
BPA can leach out of the epoxy lining of cans into food.
A recent report studied the linings of canned goods of popular brands, and the vast majority contained BPA. PVC (#3 plastic) and polystyrene (#6 plastic) were also found in some of the can linings.
A few brands, such as Amy’s Kitchen and Eden Foods, have transitioned away from BPA and disclose the substitutes they’re using. One brand, Eden Foods, was concerned about BPA in the 1990s. They have been BPA-free since 1999, using an oil and plant resin-based lining instead, despite higher costs and low public knowledge of the issue at the time.
BPA in thermal paper
BPA is also absorbed through our skin. This means that the coating on thermal paper such as receipts is a huge source of our BPA exposure. In fact, the amount of BPA on receipts can be 1000x greater than the amount found in cans.
A 2019 report found that handling receipts caused a huge spike in BPA levels in participants’ urine, and this spike increased significantly with the use of hand sanitizer.
Those who work with receipts are at the greatest risk of exposure. Since cashiers are typically young people and/or women, that means that people with the greatest exposure to receipts are often some of the most vulnerable to its effects (those who are still growing/developing, and women of childbearing age).
BPA in recycled paper
Since thermal paper often ends up in the recycling system, much of the recycled paper products in existence contain trace amounts of BPA. This further highlights the need for reducing BPA use in the first place.
What about its environmental impact?
BPA has been detected in air, soil, and water, which means that it has contaminated the environment. It is thought to harm organisms, such as those who live in aquatic environments.
What about alternatives?
Here’s the problem: new research is showing that its substitutes (including BPS and BPF) are toxic too.
According to a 2015 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, “Based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and they have endocrine-disrupting effects.”
What can you do?
- Refuse your receipt if you can.
- If you work with receipts, consider wearing gloves.
- Reduce your use of canned foods, or choose from reputable BPA-free brands. (This is challenging, as cans are often much more recyclable than plastic packaging.)
- Do not heat plastics (such as in the microwave or dishwasher.)
- Choose baby bottles and sippy cups made from glass or stainless steel.
- Be wary of “BPA-free” plastic, and ask what it is made from.
Almeida, Susana & Raposo, Antonio & Almeida-González, Maira & Carrascosa Iruzubieta, Conrado. (2018). Bisphenol A: Food Exposure and Impact on Human Health: Bisphenol A and human health effect…. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 10.1111/1541-4337.12388. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1541-4337.12388
American Chemistry Council. (2016). About BPA: Polycarbonate Plastics. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Product-Groups-and-Stats/PolycarbonateBPA-Global-Group/About-BPA-Polycarbonate-Plastic.pdf
Canesi, L., & Fabbri, E. (2015). Environmental Effects of BPA: Focus on Aquatic Species. Dose-response : a publication of International Hormesis Society, 13(3), 1559325815598304. doi:10.1177/1559325815598304 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4674185/
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Environmental Defence. (2016). Buyer Beware: Toxic BPA and regrettable substitutes found in the linings of canned food. https://environmentaldefence.ca/report/buyers-beware-toxic-bpa-regrettable-substitutes-in-the-linings-of-canned-food/
Environmental Defence. (2019). First-of-its-kind Canadian experiment finds body levels of hormone disrupting BPA and BPS spike after handling receipts. https://environmentaldefence.ca/2019/02/07/canadian-experiment-bpa-bps-receipts/
Harvard School of Public Health. (2009). BPA, chemical used to make plastics, found to leach from polycarbonate drinking bottles into humans. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/bpa-chemical-plastics-leach-polycarbonate-drinking-bottles-humans/
Health Canada. Bisphenol A (BPA). (2018). https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/home-garden-safety/bisphenol-bpa.html
Konieczna A, Rutkowska A, Rachoń D. (2015). Health risk of exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25813067
Liao C, Kannan K. (2011). Widespread occurrence of bisphenol A in paper and paper products: implications for human exposure. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21939283
Mayo Clinic. (2019). What is BPA, and what are the concerns about BPA? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331
McGovern V. (2009). Polycarbonate plastics and human BPA exposure: urinary levels rise with use of drinking bottles. Environmental health perspectives, 117(9), A406. doi:10.1289/ehp.117-a406b https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737044/
Rochester, J. & Bolden, A. (2015). Bisphenol S and F: A Systematic Review and Comparison of the Hormonal Activity of Bisphenol A Substitutes. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1408989
Statistics Canada. (2011). Bisphenol A concentrations in Canadians, 2009 to 2011. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-625-x/2013001/article/11778-eng.htm