BPA and Plastics
Dear Dr. Lanny: I am a busy mother of two children, a 7-month-old baby girl and a 3-year-old boy. It seems as if not a week goes by that I don’t get an alarmed e-mail from a caring friend, urging me to avoid some kind of plastic, whether for bottles or sippy cups (bisphenol-A, or BPA, for example), or even containers labeled “microwave safe” for heating food for my kids. I never know how seriously to take all of this concern. I did toss out bottles and cups that I suspected contained BPA. On the other hand, I’ve read many cans are lined with possibly harmful plastics, and I can’t afford to toss out all of our food. What do you suggest?
A: Yes, I feel your pain. We are living in a world of dangerous triplets: PCB, DDT, BPA and many more. Modern chemistry has created a remarkable range of products that have improved our lives in many ways. Think of your fleece winter clothing. It’s warm. It’s lightweight. It retains its ability to insulate even when wet, and it’s made of recycled soda bottles. Pretty cool. I love to bicycle and my pleasure is enhanced by carbon compounds in my bike frame, and the miracle of Spandex, which makes even an old doc look…OK, better. Newer plastic containers weigh a fraction of glass, thereby requiring less fuel to transport, and if they drop on the ground, no dangerous shards result.
Unfortunately, as the saying so accurately goes, there is no free lunch. These miraculous new materials may react with their contents, or with outside forces such as microwaves or ultraviolet rays, creating new and unforeseen chemicals that may wind up in our environment or our food supply. Can the public reasonably be expected to know that reusing certain containers for acidic liquids could be a bad idea?
Only a few short years ago, Nalgene’s reusable water bottle was a favorite of campers and hikers. It was light, sturdy, cool-looking, nearly unbreakable and infinitely reusable. It was also made with BPA. Nalgene has since introduced a line of BPA-free water bottles, clearly acknowledging its core buyers were fleeing the brand. Now the wider public is coming to BPA anxiety as well.
Is this concern justified? Depends on whom you listen to or what you read. As early as the 1930s the use of BPA in plastics raised questions about its health effects. A few of the many products using BPA include baby bottles, food can linings, sports equipment, eyeglass lenses and DVDs. Although most BPA is used in non-food applications, chemicals have a nasty habit of eventually winding up in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Expert reports from both the National Institutes of Health and the National Toxicology Program have expressed “some concern” regarding BPA’s effects on behavior, the brain and the prostate, particularly in fetuses, infants and children. Both the NIH and the NTP grade “concern” from negligible, to minimal, to some, to serious. So these expert reports are two levels above “negligible.”
What should you do? When people discuss BPA, they often refer to Canada’s 2008 ban on its use. The Canadians, however, have not totally banned BPA, not by a long shot. They did ban its use in baby bottles and recommended that the government “take action to limit the amount of bisphenol being released into the environment.” The Canadian report and other scientific studies do not see any health consequences at present, but they see potential and, as yet, unclear risk. The Canadians and others are acting on the principle of precaution in the face of possible danger. U.S. government studies have shown that greater than 90 percent of adults and children tested positive for BPA in urine tests. Even though urine levels were extremely low, and felt to be way below potential danger, this data clearly shows that BPA is remarkably widespread. Given the value of this chemical in non-food applications it is unlikely that a total ban will be enacted unless a genuine “smoking gun” is found.
So, returning to the question, should you worry? I don’t think so. Certainly not as an adult. For a newborn child? Still, probably not. But here again is another good argument for breast feeding. Nursing means fewer or no bottles. BPA-free baby bottles are now widely available. Any risk of BPA coming out of the bottle or the formula can liner seems to be related to heat or prolonged exposure, which suggests that powdered formula made up when you are about to use it minimizes any theoretical risk.
The Canadian and U.S. governments have committed substantial money and resources to further research. I hope we all will gain greater understanding of present or future risk soon. BPA exposure is a problem that you can, at least, alleviate through your buying and personal feeding decisions.
Be aware and read established sources of objective, well-substantiated information—but don’t allow anxiety to take hold. I would first be sure that your child’s environment is free of cigarette smoke, alcohol, and in-house or outdoor pesticides and fertilizers. And read up on hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) as this is a local issue that may have far-reaching consequences beyond BPA and beyond our individual control.
Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown sons, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.