Why is BPA bad for our health? Is BPA bad for the environment? All these questions answered and more, and what we can do to reduce our exposure to this seemingly unnecessarily chemical.
Content last updated February 2014.
The more and more I think and write about food, the more I put my pantry shelves to scrutiny. While the ultimate goal is to reduce any reliance on ‘processed food’, one food product that makes a regular appearance in my kitchen is canned tomatoes. They are essential during the winter months when fresh tomatoes taste like cardboard and can transform winter stews and soups (like my Easy Lentil Soup with Kale).
As much as canned foods are convenient, they come with the consideration of BPA contamination, and we need to ask ourselves how this can impact our health and the health of the environment. But what is BPA? What are the health and environmental concerns?
What Is BPA?
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a synthetic compound used to make polycarbonate plastic food storage containers, water and baby bottles. It is prized for its ability to make hard, clear plastics. It is also found in epoxy resins that protect the metal linings of food and drink cans such as canned tomatoes, canned soup and sodas from degradation which can occur when metal contacts food.
Why Is BPA Bad For Our Health?
BPA Residue In Our Bodies
In 2010 it was found that 91% of Canadians have BPA in their bodies. This number is similar to that of 95% of Americans aged 6 and up and 99% of Germans aged 3-14.
BPA as an Endocrine Disruptor
Health Canada has set a tolerable upper limit (TUL) of BPA consumption to 25ug/kg of body weight per day which has been criticized by many researchers. New evidence shows that even low doses of BPA can have endocrine-disrupting effects, meaning BPA can imitate our body’s own hormones in a way that could be hazardous to health.
Why Is BPA Bad For Children
Humans in a stage of rapid development such as young childhood or in the womb tend to be especially sensitive to the endocrine-disrupting effects of BPA. The residue of BPA has been found in newborn infants, indicating that BPA is passed on from the mother to the child.
The Limitations Of Studying The Effects Of BPA On Our Health
Ethical constraints mean BPA cannot be tested in human trials. Some animal studies have demonstrated the effects of BPA at or below the upper limit of BPA set by Health Canada and have found disturbing results;
- Decreased plasma testosterone in males,
- Decreased sperm count and fertility in males,
- Stimulation of mammary gland development in female offspring,
- Altered immune function,
- Behavioural changes, including hyperactivity and increased hostility.
BPA Banned in Baby Bottles
Canada Followed By The EU
In 2008 the Government of Canada banned BPA in baby bottles*. This was found to be the main source of BPA for this age group, especially when hot or boiling liquids were added to the bottles. The European Union followed suit and has also issued a ban on BPA in baby bottles.
The United States Followed on BPA Ban
Not long after, the United States FDA also removed the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging. They stated that their choice to remove this chemical was more based on market abandonment rather than safety concerns.
Australia and New Zealand Left Behind
Australia has been left behind in the abandonment of BPA baby bottles. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) states there is no health risk related to BPA baby bottles if the manufacturer’s instructions are followed. They suggest the use of glass baby bottles if parents have any concerns. The Australian Government has recently introduced a voluntary phase-out of BPA use in polycarbonate baby bottles.
*The Canadian Government has still not removed BPA from infant formula. See here from more info.
BPA and Environmental Concerns
BPA’s Effect on Aquatic Life
BPA is a persistent compound that does not degrade in the environment. It can have seriously detrimental effects on aquatic life including the reproduction and development of fish, aquatic invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians.
BPA’s Effect on Plants
BPA is also a major soil pollutant that can interfere with nitrogen fixation at the roots of several types of plants. It can reach plants by way of contaminated water. I’ve written about the importance of nitrogen fixation in my post How To Cook Lentils + 5 Reasons Why We Should Eat Lentils.
What Does The EPA Say About BPA?
In 2010, the Government of Canada announced that BPA was to be added to Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act indicating the chemical was potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Along with addressing the release of BPA through industrial effluent, ongoing research is going into releases of BPA that could occur during the disposal or recycling of products.
Update January 2014: EU Findings on BPA and Human Health
In January 2014 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a draft reviewing the effects of exposure to both food and environmental sources of BPA. They identified adverse effects on the liver and kidney and effects on the mammary gland linked to exposure to BPA. The EFSA has since lowered its current upper limit of 50ug per kg of bodyweight to 5ug per kg of bodyweight*.
What You Should Know About BPA
Should You Avoid BPA Products?
The more informed we are, the better equipped we will be to make the decisions that will influence our exposure to BPA in our day-to-day life. As ongoing research continues, I would prefer to play it on the safe side rather than expose myself to large amounts of potentially harmful substances. Here is some more information to help keep you well informed.
What is the BPA Content Of Some Common Foods?
- 220 g canned baked beans in tomato sauce (3.1 µg BPA),
- 100 g canned ham (42.2 µg BPA),
- 250 mL canned tomato soup (2.5 µg BPA),
- 1 small can of tuna (120 g drained) (5.7 µg BPA)
- 125 mL canned fruit (4.8 µg BPA)
- 2 L of water (2 µg BPA)
- 1L canned soda or energy drink (0.1-4.5 µg BPA)
- 1L canned beer (0.08-0.54 µg)
Based on the EU’s temporary upper limit a 70kg (154 lbs) person shouldn’t be exposed to any more than 350 µg BPA per day. Health Canada recommends a maximum of 1750 µg BPA per day.
A recent 2012 assessment of Canadians intake of food products exposed to BPA indicates that Canadians consumption is within the acceptable range. See here for a full assessment, including the BPA content of other food products.
The Environmental Working Group has an excellent assessment of a variety of canned foods and their BPA content. See the full report here.
What Effects the Leaching of BPA From Food Containers Into Food
- Elevated temperatures (boiling over 100 degrees C),
- The caffeine content of the food; caffeine increases migration of BPA to the food,
- The fat content of the food; fat appears to decrease migration of BPA to food,
- Prolonged usage of the container;
- Reheating foods; only use containers labels as heat and microwave-safe, or non-BPA containers, such as glass for microwaving purposes.
Environmental Sources Contributing to Our BPA Exposure
Food is the main source of BPA for consumers but environmental sources are also a concern. Thermal paper accounts for 15% total human BPA exposure. BPA exposure can also come from a variety of other environmental sources:
- Epoxy resins used in food-processing applications, ie the coating applied to the interior surfaces of some vats used in winemaking,
- Epoxy resins in epoxy resin-based paints, floorings, adhesives and protective coatings. Similar resins are also used in some dental composites and sealants,
- Epoxy resins in thermal paper used for sales receipts, movie tickets, airlines tickets,
- Epoxy resin lined water pipes,
- Water contamination from BPA leaching from landfills into the soil and the runoff from paper mills.
What Else Contains BPA
BPA can be found all around us in our industrial world. These sources don’t necessarily contribute to human exposure, but they sure do contribute to environmental contamination.
- Epoxy resins in surfboards,
- DVDs and CDs,
- Eyeglass lenses,
- Household electronics,
- Sports equipment,
- Sheets for roofing,
- Greenhouse glazing,
- Glazing for bus stop shelters,
- Safety goggles,
- Contact lens holders,
- Collapsible tubes (toothpaste, cream).
BPA-Free Alternatives and Living BPA-Free
Alternatives To BPA
There continues to be a lot of uncertainty surrounding BPA-free alternatives with some speculation that BPS may have similar effects as BPA. Safer options will be to opt for glass in place of plastic, or chose fresh fruits and vegetables over canned.
Oleoresins can be used in place of BPA in canned products and is a natural mixture of an oil and a resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir. Eden Foods uses oleoresin for its canned bean products. More research is needed in the area. In the meantime, I am switching my canned tomatoes to tomatoes in glass jars.
BPA-Free Water Bottles
Limit hard plastic bottles (#7 plastic) that can leach BPA into water. Carry stainless steel or other BPA-free bottles. Don’t reuse bottled water bottles, as the plastic can harbour bacteria and break down to release plastics chemicals.
References for Why Is BPA Bad
David Suzuki: 12 Ways To Avoid BPA
Environmental Working Group: BPA in Canned Foods
The Environment of Canada: Government of Canada Takes Further Action on BPA
European Foods Safety Authority: Bisphenol A
Health Canada: Updated Assessment of BPA Exposure From Food Sources
PEN Nutrition: Food Safety – Bisphenol A Practice Guidance Summary
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.