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Just a Dash of BPA With My Soup Please

Just a Dash of BPA With My Soup, Please

That extra ingredient in your canned food may come free of charge, but it could still cost you plenty.

BPA, that particularly nefarious industrial chemical also known as bisphenol A, has been making headlines again recently with the release last week of a Consumer Reports study that found significant quantities of it in a host of common food products. Another study, just detailed in the November 11 Washington Post, has shown the chemical causes significant harm to the reproductive systems of human males who have been exposed to high levels of it. With the Obama Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expected to complete its review of BPA safety by November 30, it’s likely that its regulation will be a high priority for legislators and health advocates, much to the chagrin of the chemical and plastic industries.

Bisphenol A has been in widespread use for decades: as an epoxy liner of food cans used to prevent spoilage and prolong shelf life, and as a building block of polycarbonate plastic bottles, compact discs, plastic eating utensils, dental sealants, water pipes, and a host of consumer electronic gadgets. It’s ubiquitous, and it’s been repeatedly shown to leach from cans and plastic containers into food. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a survey which found BPA in nearly 93% of the people tested, indicating a likely presence in the vast majority of the U.S population. This is cause for alarm amongst many consumers, food safety advocates, and environmentalists who have repeatedly drawn attention to more than 200 animal studies showing links between very low doses of BPA and a lengthy list of adverse health effects. That list includes thyroid problems, obesity, genital abnormalities, learning disabilities, breast cancer, prostate cancer, early onset puberty, immune deficiencies and more.

In the Consumer Reports study, particularly high levels of BPA were found in Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans, Progresso Vegetable Soup, and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. The levels found were comparable to those shown to cause serious health problems in animal studies. Detectable levels, in fact, were found in “virtually all” of the products tested, including various brands of tuna, beans, tomato sauce, liquid baby formula, and some products labeled “BPA free” and “organic.”  A toxicologist with Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, said the results show, at the very least, that there is “enough evidence to warrant precaution and to prohibit the use of BPA in anything that would come into contact in food [sic].”

Bisphenol A is often referred to as a synthetic estrogen, acting as a hormone mimic, adhering to estrogen receptors and altering homeostasis – the internal balance of bodily systems. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) stated in 2006 that BPA was a likely endocrine disruptor, with a wide array of potential negative effects upon reproductive, neural, and immune systems. The endocrine system serves as one of the body’s main communication and control networks, coordinating the flow of chemical messages (hormones). This system helps determine a body’s energy levels, reproduction, growth and development, and nervous system responses to one’s surroundings and stress. The Endocrine Society, a public health and research organization, recently issued a statement calling for a re-evaluation of the safety of BPA and other endocrine disruptors in light of evidence of “infertility, cancers, malformations” and the likelihood that these effects may be transmitted to future generations through genetic mutation or continued direct exposure.  The Society goes on to argue for the application of the “precautionary principle” in regards to endocrine disruptors, giving public heath precautionary measures primacy in the absence of a conclusive scientific consensus about their safety. An application of this principle to public policy, in this case, would likely lead to the abolition of BPA while further human studies are conducted. This is a highly unlikely outcome of the current public health debate, however, given global sales of BPA are around $6 billion, creating a powerful constituency for its continued use.

In the November 11, 2009 Washington Post, writer Lyndsey Layton reports on the results of a Kaiser Foundation Research Institute study, which “is the first to examine the impact of bisphenol A, or BPA, on the reproductive systems of human males.” In the study, which focused on 634 male workers at four factories in China who were exposed to elevated levels of the chemical, researchers found the workers were “four times as likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and seven times as likely to have difficulty with ejaculation.”  While a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council dismissed the results of the study, noting the high levels of exposure were of “little relevance to average consumers who are exposed to trace levels of BPA,” it will likely add considerable weight to calls for further regulation due to the overwhelming number of animal studies showing adverse effects due to exposure to trace amounts.

It will be interesting to note over the coming months, perhaps years, how the FDA responds to the wealth of studies showing the harmful effects of BPA on humans and animals.  As Tom Philpott has pointed out recently in the online magazine Grist, the FDA has shown itself to be heavily influenced by the interests of the industry it supposedly regulates. Philpott points to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series published earlier this year. In this series, the paper reported that the FDA’s deputy director at one point sought assistance from the BPA industry’s chief lobbyist to discredit a Japanese study that showed a causal relationship to miscarriages in workers exposed to the chemical, before its own scientists had been given the opportunity to examine the study. The paper also revealed that the FDA’s 2008 draft review, which declared BPA safe, was based upon just two studies, both of which were fully funded by the chemical industry. Additionally, the paper reported that the American Chemical Council “wrote entire sections of that draft.” Interestingly enough, the aforementioned chief lobbyist for the BPA industry, Steven G. Hentges, to whom the FDA requested help in order to preempt the Japanese study, was the very same source to whom the Washington Post turned for commentary regarding the Chinese factory workers study.

The Obama administration recently announced grants of $30 million over the next two years to study BPA safety. In the meantime, if consumers wish to find answers to their questions about BPA from federal regulators, they’ll have to hope the FDA acts in the public interest on November 30, and not the chemical industry’s.  They may also wish to thank the BPA industry for giving them yet another good reason to eat fresh and locally grown.

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