Smarter Living: Family Health

Bisphenol-A (BPA) -- a chemical that is associated with obesity, lower sperm counts, and pre-cancerous changes in the body -- is found in the bodies of 90 percent of Americans. Now a study shows that you can halve your levels of BPA and other chemicals within three days through a change in diet.

When Monica Laurlund, a mother of two, signed up to participate in the study looking at body levels of chemicals from plastic, she was astonished by her BPA numbers. "The most surprising thing for us was how dramatic our BPA levels were before the study -- higher than the national average," says Laurlund, adding, "And the fact that they could drop so dramatically within one day was just shocking."

Laurlund and her family took part in a study showing that body levels of chemicals from plastic can plummet when people made relatively minor changes in their eating and food storage habits, including choosing freshly prepared foods over prepackaged items, avoiding restaurants, and consuming organically grown produce and meats.

A Week of Fresh Foods

Although food is suspected to be a major source of exposure, no one had ever examined whether or not changes in diet could cause levels in the body to fall. To explore this question, research staff from the Silent Spring Institute and Breast Cancer Fund selected five families who ate typical amounts of canned foods, food from restaurant food, and foods stored in plastic containers.

Having collected baseline readings of the amount of BPA and phthalates from urine samples, the researchers delivered to the families freshly prepared meals made from organic grains, vegetables, and meats for three days. All foods were stored in glass or stainless-steel containers and the families were instructed not to microwave in plastic. The participants were given stainless-steel water bottles and the children took their lunch to school in stainless-steel containers. (Click here if you'd like to see week's menu for the diet.)

At the end of the week, the participants' urine was again collected and measured. The researchers found that after the intervention with fresh foods, BPA levels dropped on average by more than 60 percent and phthalate levels were cut in half. When the participants returned to their normal habits, their BPA levels went back up. Their phthalate levels did not rise as much either because the chemical takes longer than BPA to build up in the body or because the participants made changes in their eating habits and food handling.

Why BPA and Phthalates Are of Concern

BPA and some phthalates are suspected of disrupting the way hormones work in the body. BPA has been linked with potential harm to the developing brain, problems with behavior and learning, and prostate cancer, according to a 2008 review conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP).

Other studies have suggested links between BPA and breast cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Some phthalates, including the phthalate DEHP which declined in participants' samples, have been found to interfere with synthesis of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and have been linked to abnormal formation of male reproductive organs resulting in infertility later in life.

Studies show that BPA can leach from plastic containers and linings into food. BPA has been removed from nearly all brands of baby bottles, but it is still found in the resin linings used in soda and food cans. Some PVC plastic wraps, used for cheese and meat, contain DEHP.

Bringing the Results Home

For Laurlund, participating in the study had a very personal meaning. "Cancer and breast cancer has affected both sides of our family pretty closely," said Laurlund. "We thought the study was a great opportunity to contribute."

As a result of the study, Laurlund said her family has stopped buying canned food and replaced their plastic food storage containers with glass ones. They don't buy bottled water, either. Their two children, an eight-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, have been talking about these changes to their friends at school. "Immediately my son wanted all cans removed from my pantry," said Laurlund.

Richard Stahlhut, an environmental health researcher and physician at the University of Rochester in New York, said the findings were important because they show how easy it is to decrease the body levels of some of today's industrial chemicals. "Nobody had done that simple experiment before," said Stahlhut. "It shows that you really can have some impact on the exposure to certain chemicals by the things you do."

What You Can Do

Simple changes in the kitchen can reduce your exposure to BPA and phthalates:

  • Store foods in glass and stainless steel containers rather than plastic. Durable and attractive glass containers with sealable lids are easy to find in most stores and can be safely used in the freezer, microwave, and dishwasher. Or simply save your glass sauce jars and lids and reuse them as storage containers.
  • Eat fresh or frozen produce instead of canned.
  • Purchase soups and other prepared foods in cartons instead of cans, which are made using polyethylene plastic and do not contain BPA or DEHP. Pass on the soda in favor of juice from glass bottles or filtered tap water.
  • Don't microwave in plastic.
  • Cook with fresh ingredients and eat out less often. See our recipes section for quick, healthy meals.
  • Drink from a stainless steel water bottle. Avoid drinking from office water coolers.
  • Avoid cups and bottles made from polycarbonate, a hard transparent plastic made with bisphenol A. It is usually marked #7 or PC.
  • Ask your dentist for BPA-free sealants and composite filling materials.

Learn More

Chemical Index: Bisphenol A

Switchboard: New Study Finds Changes in Diet Affect BPA and Phthalate Exposure

Take Out Toxics Campaign

Leaders and Laggards in the Effort to Rid Food and Beverage Containers of BPA

MENU

Interested in trying out the diet? Here's the week's menu:

Breakfasts

  • Bran and blueberry muffins* (made with fresh blueberries)
  • Cinnamon rolls*
  • Granola*
  • Fresh fruit mix*
  • Yogurt(from a #5 polypropylene container)

Lunches

  • Turkey
  • Stone-ground mustard*
  • Swiss cheese
  • Tuna salad (Tuna from retort packaging – #4 LDPE liner)
  • Chicken taco filling*
  • Vegetable bow tie pasta*
  • Fresh carrots and celery sticks
  • Fresh apples and bananas
  • Toasted nuts* (from bulk food bins)
  • Bread(organic, from grocery store)
  • Flour tortillas

Dinners

  • Chicken and dumplings*
  • Salad* (organic, seasonal greens)
  • Crispy oven-fried chicken*
  • Mashed potatoes*
  • Sauteed fresh spinach*
  • Deep-dish lasagna* (with fresh vegetables for filling and sauce)
  • Salad dressing*

Snacks

  • Apple crisp* (with fresh apples)
  • Brown rice Krispie treats (made with peanut butter from glass jars)

Beverages

  • Water* (in a stainless steel water bottle)
  • Coffee (from a French press or ceramic hand drip)
  • Soda (in glass bottles or from soda fountains)
  • Milk (in glass bottles)

*Prepared by caterer from basic ingredients

last revised 4/19/2011

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