FAQs on BPA: the attacks continue, but are they justified?

soup non-BPAFor the past 6 years, Shelf Life Advice has been posting information about BPA. That's when the chemical first came on the horizon as a health concern, says the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter. In case you've missed all the bad press BPA has gotten, here's a quick definition and review: BPA is a chemical compound (Bisphenol-A) that's been used to make a wide array of plastic products including bottles, silverware food packaging, most soup and beer can linings, store receipts, dental composites, eyeglass lenses, auto parts, and compact disks.  It works fine for all of these purposes, but it also has many people worry about possible harm to the human body. 


BPA has inspired fierce debate and a great deal of media attention, including two recent articles in Newsweek.  Here's the main question being debated: Is it harmful to humans, or is the amount we're exposed to so small that its presence is insignificant and/or is it excreted so rapidly that it's no threat to human health? At this time, it's still perfectly legal to use BPA in products that come in contact with foods, except for those consumed by infants. 


The Berkeley Wellness Letter says billions of pounds of BPA are produced every year, and "our overall exposure to it has not gone down."


Given the uncertainties and fears associated with BPA, we end the article with suggestions on how to decrease the amount of impact it has on you and your family.


What harmful effects has BPA been accused of causing?


Scientific evidence (discussed in the January 2015 Newsweek article) mentions evidence that BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means that it can interfere with the functioning of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone and cause problems in  human reproduction and development, brain function, and cardiovascular health.  But do studies of the hyperactivity of fish larvae (and other animal studies) tell us anything about the human response to this chemical? Other studies show that children whose mothers had higher levels of BPA during their pregnancy had "a slightly increased risk of developing ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder]." 


A 2014 study mentioned in the Berkeley Wellness Letter found that men with prostate cancer had higher levels of BPA than men without cancer, but this association certainly does not prove that BPA causes or even aggravates prostate cancer. 


Here's what a March 4, 2015 Newsweek article had to say:  "Newsweek spoke with about 20 scientists, leaders in the field of BPA research, and the majority say it is likely (though not certain) that the chemical plays a role in a litany of health concerns: obesity, diabetes, problems with fertility and reproductive organs, and susceptibility to various cancers and cognitive/behavioral deficits like ADHD."


The January Newsweek article says "There are links between government activities regarding BPA and the plastics industry." Newsweek goes on to quote the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which said the following: "A government report claiming that Bisphenol A is safe was written largely by the plastics industry and others with a financial stake in the controversial chemical."


Who wants BPA usage discontinued and why? 


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein says this: "I do believe, where possible, companies are trying to reduce their use of BPA.  It is clearly another case of misinformation and consumer lack of trust in science that is leading to its removal.  The science does not seem to support its removal.  I suspect that some of its replacements may be proprietary at this point."  Another food scientist who serves on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board, Dr. Catherine Cutter, also attributes changes to consumer pressure.  "Consumers have a lot of sway," she says. 


Yet a third Board member, food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser, points out the financial advantage for companies that find an alternative to BPA: "I think that container and packaging manufacturers are actively looking for BPA-free materials. “BPA free” will be a tremendous marketing advantage, so there is much to be gained by attaining this claim. I don’t think that there is any clear replacement for BPA available at this time, but I do believe that it will be available in the future. A great deal of testing will be required to make certain that the replacement is safe. In my opinion, BPA should be proven safe or phased out."  Dr. Bowser makes an important point here; according to a January Newsweek article, the substitute that some manufacturers are now using, Bisphenol-S [BPS], may be no improvement over BPA since it may have similar harmful effects upon the human body.


What has been the U.S. government's response to consumer fears of BPA?


In 2012, the FDA ruled that BPA could no longer be used in baby bottles and sippy cups. However, the FDA has continued to say that the chemical is safe. Nevertheless, in response to the hue and cry, many companies have replaced BPA with other chemicals.  


What is the FDA going to do about BPA? Will it simply ignore the public outcry? Is that what it's done in the past?  Not really. Here's what the FDA said about BPA in its updated (Nov. 2014) report entitled "Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Applications": "FDA’s current perspective, based on its most recent safety assessment, is that BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods. Based on FDA’s ongoing safety review of scientific evidence, the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging."


The second page of this report reviews research that supports the FDA's position.  Page 3 (the "New Steps and Collaborations" section) discusses what the FDA will continue to do to keep track of scientific evidence on the effects of BPA.  These efforts include working with other U.S. federal agencies and international regulatory and public health counterparts to monitor research on BPA.


Why was BPA added to cans in the first place, for what benefit?


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen says BPA is extremely useful as a liner in cans, especially in cans containing acidic foods, for example tomato products. The BPA lining prevents a chemical reaction between the metal can and the food; therefore, it prevents the acid from causing the can to swell.  Before the use of BPA, if a can became swollen, consumers didn't know if the cause was a chemical reaction or the bacteria that cause botulism. 


The elimination of the BPA lining has another drawback. If the use of BPA in cans is eliminated and not replaced with other material that could prevent a chemical reaction between the food and the metal can, there might be a lot more food waste because of unwarranted fear of cans improperly suspected of being contaminated. 


Dr. Allen also mentioned that the introduction of the BPA liner slightly changed the taste of canned food. In the 1960s, when BPA was introduced, some consumers noticed this and complained, "Canned food doesn't taste like it used to." Dr. Regenstein says, "They were missing the 'metallic taste' that resulted from the reaction of the food with the can!"


What does recent research reveal about the risks of exposure to BPA?


It's impossible for Shelf Life Advice (or any other source) to come to definitive conclusions about the safety or risks of BPA.  Studies have shown that at least 90% of Americans have BPA in their urine, but it may be harmless because the amounts are low, and BPA is excreted rapidly.  BPA is widely used by dentists.  But again, the BPA in our fillings is too small an amount to present a problem, says the American Dental Association. But scientists don't agree on how much is too little to matter. The plastics industry defends BPA as safe, and scientists can be found on both sides of the issue. Meanwhile, many manufacturers are voluntarily switching to other products. Are these new ones any safer? It's too soon to tell.


If the information about possible adverse effects of BPA upon the body worry you, what can you do to protect yourself from contact with the chemical?   


Food scientist Dr. Susan Brewer (writing for Shelf Life Advice in 2009) pointed out that the numbers 3 or 7 inside the recycle triangle on a product label or on the bottom of a container means that BPA is most likely used in the manufacture of the container.  You can limit your contact with BPA by not buying or using containers with these numbers.


Note that the following products are no longer made from polycarbonate containing BPA: baby bottles, toys, plastic wraps, margarine and yogurt containers, and egg cartons.  (See plastic products for further information.)


Since the current substitutes for BPA may be no safer than BPA, The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (May 2015) made these suggestions for those wanting to avoid BPA:

  • "Instead of polycarbonate bottles and food containers, use glass, stainless steel, or aluminum." 
  • Be careful about how you use plastic containers.  Don't expose them to high heat by putting boiling water in them or putting them into the dishwasher.
  • Cut down on your use of canned foods in your home.  Instead, purchase foods that come in jars or cartons.  Use more frozen or fresh food.
  • Try to avoid handling thermal printer paper receipts whenever possible. The paper is often coated with BPA as a developer. If you don't need the receipt, don't accept it from the salesperson.  If you do take the receipt, put it in an envelope or plastic bag rather than loose in a pocket or purse.  After you've handled a receipt, do not handle food until after you've washed your hands.

The Berkeley Wellness Letter concludes with these "most important" warnings: "Don't touch thermal receipts right after using alcohol-based hand sanitizer or hand lotion--or even if your hands are greasy or wet with water." Finally, this advice: "If your job requires frequent contact with thermal paper, wear disposable gloves."


Note:  If you are pregnant and/or have young children, you might want to make an effort to cut down on exposure to BPA in your home. "Better safe than sorry," the expression advises.


To reach links to other Shelf Life Advice articles on BPA, just type "BPA" into the search box on the home page. To further educate yourself about this controversial topic, read the articles listed in "sources" below. 





fda.gov "Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Applications" 



newsweek.com "BPA Is Fine, If You Ignore Most Studies About It"

by Douglas Main / March 4, 2015



newsweek.com "BPA and Its Substitute Alter Brain Growth, Linked to Hyperactivity"

by Douglas Main 1/15/15  



University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, "What should you believe about BPA?"  

May 2015.


Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board Members who contributed to this article:


Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science



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