BPA concerns in plastics

Dear EarthTalk: What is “BPA” used in plastics, and why should I worry about it? Are there certain household items or food containers to avoid because of BPA?Tina Sillers, via e-mail

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) is a chemical that has been in use for upwards of four decades in the manufacture of many hard plastic food containers, including baby bottles and reusable cups and the lining of metal food and beverage cans (including canned liquid infant formula). The agency further reports that “trace amounts of BPA can be found in some foods packaged in these containers.”

The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that “growing amount of scientific research has linked BPA exposure to altered development of the brain and behavioral changes, a predisposition to prostate and breast cancer, reproductive harm, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.” The group adds that more than 93 percent of Americans have some BPA in their bodies, primarily from exposure through food contamination and other preventable contact.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was initially dismissive of worries about BPA, but increased public pressure and new research on the potential effects of BPA on the brain and the prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children have forced the agency to revisit its last survey on the topic from 2008. “While we learn more, the Food and Drug Administration is supporting current efforts by industry to stop the manufacture of infant bottles and feeding cups made with BPA…,” reports HHS.

In the meantime, consumers can be vigilant. The plastic items most likely to contain are made of either polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or plastic #3) or from mixed plastic sources, otherwise known in the recycling industry as “other” or plastic #7. PVC plastics—also notorious for leaching toxic phthalates that have been linked to human reproductive and developmental problems—are found in a wide range of products, from shampoo and salad dressing containers to shower curtains and kids’ toys. Those once-ubiquitous polycarbonate unbreakable baby and water bottles reputed to leach BPA are also a #7 plastic, though #7 is a catch-all for otherwise unidentified or mixed plastics; as such, not all #7 plastic will contain BPA.

As for other disposable and non-disposable household items, if you can locate a recycling number and you find a #1 (polyethylene, PET or PETE), #2 (high density polyethylene), #4 (low density polyethylene) or #5 (polypropylene) or #6 (polystyrene), the item should be free of BPA. (Note: #6 polystyrene, often used for disposable cups, plates and cutlery, doesn’t contain BPA but can leach the toxic carcinogen styrene into the foods and beverages it touches, and should also be avoided.)

If there’s no recycling number on the item, you can find out if an item contains BPA yourself with a BPA Test Kit from Home-Health-Chemistry.com. A kit with two swabs, all needed testing solutions and instructions is $4.99; a 10-swab set costs $14.99. Otherwise, you can replace the questionable item with one that you know is BPA-free (many companies now use this as a selling point) and vow to make more informed purchasing choices in the future.

CONTACTS: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services BPA Page, www.hhs.gov/safety/bpa/; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; Home-Health-Chemistry.com, www.home-health-chemistry.com.

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