The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

BPA Update

BPA Update

Food Safety Update

June 28, 2009

The FDA is set to review their conclusion from last year that the controversial chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is okay for infants. Sparked by a congressional letter to new FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg questioning the agency’s interaction with industry groups (including Dow Chemical) prior to making their decision, the review will consider research linking BPA to a range of health issues, including reproductive problems, cancer and neurological defects.

For over 40 years, BPA has been used in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic to help prevent can corrosion and food contamination. It is also utilized in products like baby bottles and tableware to increase heat resistance and durability. Everyday products like cell phones and computers take advantage of the chemical as well. 

Though its use is ubiquitous, the safety of BPA has actually been questioned for decades. Its toxicity was first discovered in 1930 when it was initially found to mimic estrogen, possibly leading to various cancers. In recent years, the NIH determined that BPA could pose risks to human development, contributing to the early onset of puberty.

Tests have found traces of BPA in over 90% of Americans but the FDA says that it is virtually impossible to come in contact with an unsafe amount of BPA through our everyday living activities. They also stand by the EPA’s oral reference dose of 50 ug/kg/day, which is much higher than our actual exposure levels to BPA.

However, the low-dose toxicity studies that help to formulate safe exposure thresholds have been heavily criticized because they often involve BPA being injected into experimental animals and are not representative of how humans typically ingest the chemical. Additionally, new research continues to indicate more potentially detrimental effects on human health. 

In one such study, researchers in the department of pharmacology and cell biophysics at University of Cincinnati found that exposure to BPA, which they refer to as an environmental pollutant with estrogen activity, causes abnormal activity in the hearts of female rats and mice.

Another study, from Harvard’s School of Public Health, found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonates bottles showed a two-thirds increase in their urine of BPA. This study is the first to show that bottles made with BPA release the chemical in significant enough amounts to substantially raise the level excreted through human urine.

Dr. Scott Belcher, author of the University of Cincinnati study, says that suggests that further research is needed on the effects of BPA on both infants and adults. He hopes that the FDA review will include more of the truly peer-reviewed science – and be less influenced by the American Chemical Counsel.

“I consider it absolutely imperative to consider adverse health effects across the entire life span. Otherwise, the process would be flawed. As we understand the effects of estrogen endocrine disruptors, for example, some impact is made during fetal development and will not appear until many years later in life,” he says.

In light of the increasing evidence of the potential harmful effect of BPA in humans, many retailers, like Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us, are phasing out products made with BPA. California’s Senate recently voted to ban BPA in both baby bottles and food containers; Minnesota will make the chemical illegal by 2010. Whole Foods Market stopped selling bottles made with BPA in 2006; Canada banned BPA from all baby bottles last year.

“Clearly, if long term financial and health concerns are put above immediate financial gain, a BPA free future is possible,” says Belcher. “It is interesting to see how quickly BPA-free has become a marketing catch phrase and how rapidly alternatives to polycarbonate reusable drinking containers appeared once consumer and retailer demand was voiced.”
Regulatory agencies, like the FDA, U.K. Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority support current research findings that BPA does not accumulate in the body and that the small amounts that are ingested are rapidly eliminated. 

Until the results of their upcoming review state otherwise, the FDA is not recommending that anyone stop using products that contain BPA, as it serves an important safety purpose in protecting foods from pathogens or other contaminants. The FDA is instead advising concerned consumers to be aware of alternatives to polycarbonate baby bottles, like those made from glass. Plastics containing the number “7” recycling symbol contain BPA.