New Testing on BPA in Food Cans Shows Good, Bad & Ugly; Highlights Need for Safer Alternatives

I don’t think Hall & Oates were thinking about toxic chemicals when they famously sang “No can do” but the results of a new report testing the inside of canned food containers suggests maybe they should have been.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a toxic chemical found in canned food and beverages (as the new report shows) and also found in plastic products and paper receipts. Last year, a California state scientific panel unanimously concluded that it can harm women’s reproductive health. BPA is increasingly linked to a host of other health problems- a recent review of almost a hundred human studies found strong evidence correlating early life BPA exposures with disrupted neurodevelopment, altered behaviors, and asthma in children.

However, there is little information available on BPA use in the lining of canned food. As shown in the picture at left, the lining is on the inside of the can and lid; its purpose is to create a barrier between the metal of the can and the food inside the can.

The bad news: the testing of the lining of almost 200 cans from around the country found that 67% contain BPA.

This shows that despite movement away from BPA in other kinds of packaging and food contact materials (BPA is no longer allowed in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging), the majority of canned food liners still contain BPA.

But what about the can liners that aren’t BPA? What do they contain? I’ve written about the unfortunate but all-too-common situation where we see “regrettable substitution”—a toxic chemical is removed and replaced with something else that is also toxic, or has little safety information available and later turns out to be toxic.

Here, the news is more mixed: the testing shows a range of alternative linings, from those that seem to be safer to those that are clearly regrettable substitutions.

Alternative Lining

Safer or regrettable substitution?

Oleoresin

Potential regrettable substitution: Oleoresin is a mix of oil and resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir trees. We don’t have information about the particular formulation and chemicals used so it is difficult to assess safety

Polyester

Potential regrettable substitution: We don’t have information about the particular formulation and chemicals used so it is difficult to assess safety.

Acrylic

Potential regrettable substitution: We don’t have information about the particular formulation and chemicals used so it is difficult to assess safety. But the testing did show that 39% of the acrylic linings were a polystyrene-acrylic combination. This raises concerns because polystyrene is made from styrene, a known cancer-causing chemical. We don’t know if styrene, or how much, might migrate into the food. Other studies of polystyrene resin found that this material leached endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Regrettable substitution: PVC is made from vinyl chloride, a chemical known to cause cancer in people. Workers and others involved in the life cycle of PVC face risks from vinyl chloride.

This range of alternative linings reveals that just getting rid of BPA isn’t enough—companies should be evaluating the alternative to make sure it is actually safer for human health. The process is called “alternatives assessment” and it’s key to avoiding regrettable substitutions. The diagram below, from the BizNGO Chemical Alternatives Assessment Protocol, shows the way it’s supposed to work.

An alternatives assessment is like an interview process for toxic chemical replacements. Just like you wouldn’t hire someone without doing some serious due diligence, before replacing a toxic chemical with something else, you want to ask some key questions to make sure your replacement is going to get the job done better. For example: Do we have testing to show that the replacement is not toxic? Will the chemical be hazardous to workers that make or dispose of products?

The California Safer Consumer Products program is the first in the nation to require alternatives assessment for toxic chemical replacements. They have indicated that BPA in thermal paper receipts is a potential product of interest to push through the program’s process with the goal of ultimately finding safer replacements.

Companies should also use alternatives assessment to evaluate any existing or potential BPA replacements for canned food, and make the results of these assessments available so consumers can have confidence in the products they buy.

Unfortunately, until that happens, it can be difficult for consumers to avoid BPA. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Avoid canned beverages, foods and soups, especially if pregnant or feeding young children. Choose fresh or frozen vegetables, and soups and broth that come in aseptic "brick" cartons, as these containers are BPA-free.
  • Use a BPA-free reusable water bottle, such as an unlined stainless steel bottle.
  • Don't use polycarbonate plastics (marked with a #7 PC) for storing food or beverages, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or the food or drink is for an infant or young child.
  • Say “no thank you” to paper receipts. Some stores can email you a copy of your receipt.
  • Don’t allow your dentist to apply dental sealants made from BPA (or BADGE) to either yours or your child's teeth. Ask your dentist to provide BPA-free treatments.

About the Authors

Veena Singla

Staff Scientist, Health & Environment program

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