What is BPA and Why is it Bad for You?

Just take a walk through kitchen stores, baby boutiques, any beauty aisles and you're sure to notice BPA-Free logos featured prominently on product packaging. We often reach for those products assuming they are safer, but are they? Better yet, what exactly is BPA and why are we trying to avoid it ? 

The stacks of research data published in prominent medical journals, have been discussed in the science community for years, and now its time to share this information widely with consumers.  Read on as I explain BPA; what it is, and why it's bad for you.  I'll also share my thoughts on BPA-Free and whether it's a safety claim or a marketing tactic.  

What is BPA?  

BPA is not visible to the human eye, but it is lurking everywhere- food storage containers, water bottles, canned foods, beauty products, dental resins, toys, store receipts, consumer packaging, the list goes on!  Granted, it's very small quantities leaching per item, but those small amounts bioaccumulate to large amounts with each touchpoint throughout the day, week, year.  The CDC estimates that 93% of all Americans have detectible levels of BPA in their bloodstream.  

Why is BPA bad for you? 

Bisphenol-A has been widely studied since the 1930's and shown to mimic human hormones. see timeline  When these powerful chemicals enter our bodies, they attach to our hormone receptors which are the gateway to 11 body systems  such as nervous system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system and reproductive system to name a few.  Hormones act as messengers to the various systems, initiating a cascade of activity.  When BPA, a manufactured chemical moves through our body instead of our natural hormones, it can have far reaching implications to all our body systems.  Studies have shown effects of BPA linked to breast and prostate damage, male and female infertility, early puberty, early childhood cancers, behavioral problems, cardiovascular disease and obesity. The health effects are so diverse, because hormones, or in this case, chemicals mimicking as hormones, are making their way to all our body systems.  

Are BPA-Free products safe? 

Health Canada, the US FDA and other countries worldwide deemed BPA a toxic substance, and were particularly concerned with the harmful effects to fetus, young infants and children. This initiated a ban of BPA in baby bottles in 2009. The US FDA further extended  the ban to include sippy cups, cans of baby formula and other baby/kids items. With the increased media attention around the safety of BPA in plastic, manufacturers and chemical companies saw a rapid drop in sales across the industry and in an effort to regain those customers, we soon saw the market flooded with BPA-free food containers, BPA-free beauty products and a host of other BPA-free products. But here's the problem- Most consumer plastic goods simply substituted BPA (Bisphenol-A) for BPF or BPS (Bisphenol-F, Bisphenol-S)- Same chemical family with same safety concerns. So while it may be accurate to say many new products are BPA-Free, they are not necessarily safer.  For this reason, I say it is a marketing tactic and not a safety claim.    

What can we do?

While it does seem all doom and gloom, there are things you can do today to reduce your exposure to BPA and other hormone-disrupting chemicals.  The number one way these products are entering our bodies is with food and drink, so my recommendation is to start in the kitchen.  

1) Never heat your plastic- studies show BPA is released 55 times faster when heated. (University of Cincinnati Study)

  • stop reheating food /drink in plastic ie, plates, cups, containers and wrap in the microwave, this also includes prepared foods that come in a plastic tray. Labels that say microwave-safe, oven-safe, dishwasher-safe is a product claim, not a safety claim. Generally means the item won't show signs of wear in the microwave, oven, dishwasher, but it is not a safetly claim about chemicals leaching. Recommendation: reheat food in stainless steel and glass in the oven.
  • stop serving hot food in plastic, this includes a piping hot soups but also a warm grilled cheese sandwich on plastic plate. Even slight heat will increase leaching of chemicals. Recommendation: Stainless steel plate or glass for hot food.
  • don't use plastic (single use or multi-use) at sun filled bbq's and picnics. Sunlight and heat are both damaging to plastic and significantly increase toxic chemicals leaching into the foods (and into you)
  • don't wash plastic in high heat (dishwasher or high-heat tap water) Heat breaks down the integrity of plastic. Over time these chemicals seep from the plastic and transfers to the food contents on its next use, including room temp or cold contents like popcorn or ice cream. Recommendations: use stainless steel or glass bowls
  • don't leave plastic food containers or water bottles in the car. Even non-sunny day can see interior car temperatures rise quickly. 
  • avoid plastic straws, cutlery, chopsticks or even the plastic stopper that goes in your hot coffee drink. Any plastic that goes into your mouth or into hot contents that makes its way to your mouth should be avoided. Recommendation: stainless steel spork and straws
  • replace plastic spoons, spatulas, cutting boards in your kitchen. For reasons mentioned above you want to avoid heat and frequent washing or scrubbing of plastic.

2) Look for signs of degrading plastic and toss. 

  • Red tomato stained containers. This is a sign that the integrity of the plastic has deteriorated and become more porous. It has released chemicals from the plastic which has made space for food to be absorbed into the plastic.  
  • Containers with retained odors of whatever was in there last (thai curry, spaghetti sauce, garlic marinade or bbq sauce are common lingering odors). Same as above by absorbing food odors. If it smells, means the plastic has deteriorated. 
  • warped or melted plastic, usually caused by heat are an easy sign of wear. Time to toss it! 
  • Uneven surfaces; often seen on cutting board, plates and other cutting services or frequently washed/scrubbed items. It looks like white bits of raised plastic. This is microplastic. 
3) Do a sniff test on your stainless steel water bottles
    • If you've been taking coffee, turmeric lattes or mint tea in your reusable stainless steel cup or bottle and you find that it smells even after you've washed it, it's time to replace it.  Double walled and insulated travel mugs and bottles are often lined with an invisible thin mist of resin coating which contains BPA or other chemicals. This coating is used to protect your food contents from the chemicals used to join seams. When the resin wears down with heat or repeat washing, it acts just like plastic- gets porous and retains stains and odors.  Uncoated stainless steel does not retain odor, which is why stainless steel is used  in industrial kitchens, surgical rooms, dental and surgical intruments. So if your insulated coffee mug smells, it's time to toss it. 

    When you know where BPA is lurking, you can start to making small changes to avoid it.  Take action today to reduce your toxic load. To learn more, check out this video.

     

    Written by Nita Tandon, Health and Sustainability Expert. Over the past 10 years, Nita has been an outspoken advocate and trusted resource on topics of sustainability, health, toxic chemicals and microplastics. She has been featured on CTV Ottawa, CHCH, CityTV, Newstalk 1010, Post Media, EcoParent and other publications. Nita resides with her family in Ottawa.

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