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

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.