Modern food packaging has transformed our diets for the better in many ways—fresh-tasting canned tomatoes in January and low rates of food-borne disease are not to be scoffed at. But increasing scrutiny of the materials in the cans, bottles, and vacuum packs you bring back from the store have raised fears that certain chemicals—notably, those like bisphenol A (BPA) that can mimic hormones such as estrogen—may be prompting early puberty in children, among other health problems. Last year, the National Resource Defense Council sued the FDA demanding that the agency respond to a petition to ban BPA in food packaging. Yesterday, the FDA announced that it would not be banning BPA, saying that the science linking the chemical to health risks is not yet convincing. But some companies, responding to consumer desires, are already moving to remove it from their packaging.
A study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found a link between levels of bisphenol-A in pregnant moms and behavioral problems such as anxiety and hyperactivity in their daughters at age 3. No such effects were seen in boys. BPA has estrogen-like activity and can lead to developmental and behavioral problems in animals—but whether or not it does the same in humans, and at what dosages, is a subject of considerable debate. This study won’t settle the debate but highlights the need to answer some basic questions about BPA that remain surprisingly unclear.
A report (pdf) by the Washington Toxics Coalition found that the potentially harmful plastic chemical Bisphenol A is present in low levels on most money and about half of thermal paper receipts tested in a small study. As many researchers are concerned about the possible health effects of the hormone-disrupting chemical, this new evidence of BPA’s ubiquity in our modern lives is setting off new alarms. But are the levels found on money and receipts significant?
While most customers worry about ingesting BPA due to its presence in plastic bottles, canned foods linings, and other plastic containers, it can also be absorbed through the skin, says the coalition. Thermal paper (frequently used in receipts) is often made with a coating of BPA powder, which could be an unexplored exposure route to the chemical–especially for cashiers.
The coalition tested 22 thermal paper receipts and 22 dollar bills collected from around the country. Eleven of the receipts were positive for BPA (comprising up to 2.2 percent of the total receipt weight) and 21 of the dollar bills were, though at much lower levels. The researchers suggest that BPA may be tranferred from receipts to money when people handle them together or stuff them together into a wallet.
“Our findings demonstrate that BPA cannot be avoided, even by the most conscious consumer,” said Erika Schreder, Staff Scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the report. “This unregulated use of large amounts of BPA is having unintended consequences, including exposure to people when we touch receipts.” [press release]
Cleanliness is a virtue, but it’s possible to overdo it–that’s the message from a new study, which found that antibacterial soap may be doing teenagers more harm than good. The study found that the more teenagers are exposed to the antibiotic triclosan, the more likely they are to suffer from allergies and hayfever.
The researchers also looked at the effects of the widely used plastic chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), and found signs that teenagers with more BPA exposure may have immune system problems. The study was the first of its kind to examine the link between these two chemicals and immune dysfunction, which had only previously been studied in animals. Both chemicals are endocrine-disruptors, which means they may mimic or interfere with the body’s natural hormones.
“Many research studies show an association between exposure to environmental chemicals and different disease outcomes. There is a lack of data, however, examining whether exposure to these chemicals may affect our immune systems,” Erin Rees Clayton, a researcher from the University of Michigan school of public health said in an email. [The Montreal Gazette]
A new study of 218 Chinese men found that even low levels of the controversial plastics chemical bisphenol A (BPA) can lower sperm quality and count.
For the study, which was published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, researchers noted the participants’ sperm quality and urine BPA levels over five years. When compared to participants without detectable levels of the chemical, men with BPA in their urine were three times more likely to have low quality sperm.
“This adds additional human evidence that BPA is bad,” said [the study's first author] De-Kun Li…. “The general public should probably try to avoid exposure to BPA as much as they can.” [Washington Post]
That’s a tough order, because BPA is all over the place. It’s found in everything from sports equipment to medical devices to the plastic lining in canned foods.
Li’s previous studies have shown sexual effects of high levels of BPA, including inducing impotence in male factory workers exposed to it. Those studies were done with men exposed to about 50 times as much BPA as the average U.S. man, so the results might not apply to your average Joe.
The Canadian government today declared bisphenol A, a chemical in plastics also known as BPA, to be toxic.
A scientific assessment of the impact of human and environmental exposure to bisphenol A has determined that this substance constitutes or may constitute a danger to human health and the environment [Official notice]
The chemical has been linked to heart disease, impotence, and diabetes, while animal and cell culture experiments have shown that it can mimic the female hormone estrogen. It is found in some plastic containers, and some food cans are lined with it.
While Canada is forging ahead, most other governments are dithering about whether or not the chemical poses a health threat.
How much exposure is too much, though? There is no clear answer. Two weeks ago, the European Food Safety Authority declared that BPA did not pose sufficient risk to stop using it in food containers. While tiny amounts can leach out into food, they cannot raise human exposure to unacceptably risky levels, the authority concluded after an assessment of existing scientific studies. [Nature]
When you hear mention of BPA, or bisphenol-A, plastic bottles and food containers likely come to mind. Now, a report presented by activists at the Environmental Working Group says the chemical is also in some paper store receipts.
In the study, which has not been peer reviewed, the environmental group looked for BPA in 36 sales receipts. They found that about forty percent used thermal paper (which has a chemical coating that changes colors when heated) that contained 0.8 to nearly 3 percent pure BPA by weight, 250 to 1,000 times greater than the amount of BPA typically found in a can of food or a can of baby formula. Other research, their report says, shows that BPA can transfer from receipts to a person’s skin, but how much BPA transfers or if it penetrates into the bloodstream remains uncertain. A chemical-industry trade group says the amount transferred is low:
“Available data suggests that BPA is not readily absorbed through the skin,” a spokeswoman from [The American Chemistry Council] said. “Biomonitoring data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that exposure to BPA from all sources, which would include typical exposure from receipts, is extremely low.”[Washington Post]
Yesterday, a government entity called the President’s Cancer Panel released an alarming report declaring that environmental toxins are causing “grievous harm” to Americans. The authors of the report (pdf) went on to say that while much more research needs to be done to determine the long-term effects of exposure, they believe that the “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”
But no sooner had they released the report than other cancer experts came forward to say that it wasn’t alarming, but rather alarmist.
First, the panel’s findings. In the 240-page report, the advisory panel noted that Americans are exposed to chemicals whose safety hasn’t yet been definitively established–like the chemical BPA that’s found in some everyday plastics, pesticides, and the substances found in industrial pollution. They write:
“With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread” [TIME].
There’s a new addition to the parade of studies investigating potential health problems connected to the ubiquitous plastics ingredient bisphenol A (BPA). But while the new data backs up the connection between BPA and heart disease that appeared in previous studies, the nature of the link still isn’t conclusive, and other links are not clear.
The study in PLoS One analyzed data gathered between 2003 and 2006. The association with diabetes is a bit weaker [than shown in earlier studies], but the one with heart disease remains robust. In fact, the authors are able to show a linear relationship between BPA exposure and cardiovascular disease in both data sets [Ars Technica]. While the authors confirmed that BPA-heart disease link from their 2008 study, they said they still could not sufficiently tell correlation versus causation and called for more study.
They did find another interesting tidbit, though, this one being on the good side. BPA levels in the urine of test participants plunged by 28 percent from the 2003/04 period to the 2005/06 period. That’s odd because it predates the wave of public concern over BPA, though perhaps changed industry practices are responsible, study author David Melzer says. “BPA in baby’s bottles has been very controversial and we speculate that manufacturers may be switching to other plastics for use involving food and beverages” [Scientific American].
80beats: Study: The Chemical BPA, in High Doses, Causes Impotence
80beats: More Bad News on BPA: Linked to Heart Disease and Diabetes in Humans
80beats: BPA Won’t Leave Public-Health Conversation—or Your Body
80beats: Plastic Is More Biodegradable Than We Thought. (That’s Bad.)
80beats: FDA Declares Chemical in Baby Bottles Safe, But Doubts Remain
DISCOVER: The Dirty Truth About Plastic
A chemical commonly found in plastics that has recently fallen under intense scrutiny by public health officials has now been linked to impotence. During a five year study, scientists followed 634 male Chinese factory workers who were exposed to high levels of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) on the job and compared their sexual health with that of similar Chinese factory workers not exposed to BPA. The men handling BPA were four times as likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and seven times as likely to have difficulty with ejaculation [Washington Post]. The study (PDF), published in the journal Human Reproduction, marks the first time sexual dysfunction has been linked to BPA exposure.
To be fair, the workers were exposed to BPA levels that are 50 times greater than the average U.S. man faces, so scientists can’t say how smaller amounts of the chemical will affect sexual health. However, the chemical resembles the hormone estrogen and that’s fueled worries that even very small amounts of BPA can cause harm [NPR News]. The feds are determined to get to the bottom of the issue and have pledged $30 million to researchers over the next two years in an effort to finally settle the question of whether BPA is safe.