Feature

Big bad BPA

Green Lifestyle Magazine

The term BPA-free is floated around fairly often these days, but what does BPA actually do, and where is it found?

BPA

Using glass containers is far safer than using plastic containers, most of which contain the chemical BPA.

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Health nut or not, you’ve probably heard that the chemical BPA can leach from plastic into our food and water. What isn’t so well known is that BPA is used in so many other products that almost all of us are unwittingly absorbing it into our bodies every day. So just how dangerous is BPA to our health and how can we avoid it?

What is BPA?
BPA is short for bisphenol A, a synthetic chemical widely used to harden plastic containers and bottles storing food and drink; in the linings of cans used to preserve foods such as tuna and corn; in dental sealants and medical equipment, and even some cash register and ATM receipts.

BPA can enter our bloodstream through our skin when we handle these receipts and a recent study found receipts placed near paper money in wallets, pockets and purses has led to a worldwide contamination of paper money. Of the 21 countries tested, money from Brazil, the Czech Republic and Australia was the worst affected.

What effects does BPA have?
BPA is an endocrine disruptor – interfering with the balance of hormones – and has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. We come into contact with so many sources of BPA that it is difficult to avoid. Just about everyone has detectable levels of BPA in their bodies.

Whether or not it causes us real harm is an area of hot debate. Some scientists dismiss consumer worries as an overreaction to inconclusive studies, but others say the evidence is mounting that even in low doses, BPA’s effects on the human body are cause for serious concern.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) bases its tolerable daily intake on European and US risk assessments and, although it is aware of consumer concern over BPA, FSANZ chief scientist Dr Paul Brent says the BPA debate is an example of fear generated by published reports linking chemicals to various illnesses and drawing assumptions about the relevance of animal studies to people.

“What is sometimes missed in these reports and what some people remain unaware of is the basic principle of toxicology that ‘the dose makes the poison’,” Brent says, echoing the words of 16th century toxicologist Paracelcus who said even toxic substances can be safe as long as the amount ingested is below a certain threshold.

Brent says people are exposed to such low levels of BPA that it is “highly unlikely there is any risk to human health and safety”.

Despite this, FSANZ acknowledges there are some “unresolved uncertainties in the data on BPA” and in 2010 the Australian Government introduced a voluntary phase-out of BPA use in polycarbonate baby bottles.
The same year, Choice tested canned food for the presence of BPA – 33 of the 38 foods it tested contained some BPA, including baby food, corn, baked beans, tuna and canned tomatoes, to name a few. None of the levels found neared the daily upper limit of safe exposure, but recent research suggests this limit should be set much lower.

A 2012 study by Washington State University geneticist Patricia Hunt found that when rhesus monkeys were exposed to BPA at similar levels to those humans are exposed to, it interfered with sex cell formation and the development of ovaries.

According to Professor Brian Priestly, Director of the Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment at Monash University, this study adds to the growing number of studies that suggest effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as BPA can occur at quite low doses. “Overall, this and other animal-based studies raise serious questions about possible impacts of BPA on human reproductive capacity at current levels of exposure.”

How can I avoid it?
- Opt for glass, ceramic or stainless steel food containers, particularly for hot food or liquids.

- Don’t wash polycarbonate plastic containers in the dishwasher with harsh detergents and avoid using plastic containers that are chipped or scratched.

- Reduce your use of canned and processed foods. Eat fresh or frozen instead.

- Avoid plastic containers with #7 on the bottom – they usually contain BPA. Those numbered 1 or 5 are the least harmful.

- Look for baby bottles and canned food labelled ‘BPA-free’.

- Wash your hands soon after handling receipts or paper money.