Though mothers of infants and toddlers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the estrogen mimicker BPA (bisphenol-A) is finally banned nationwide from infant formula containers as well as baby bottles and sippy cups, pregnant women — and hence their fetuses — are still routinely exposed to BPA from canned foods and beverages, reusable plastic bottles and thermal cash register receipts.
Literally hundreds of studies in lab animals and humans have linked BPA to diverse medical problems including breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, miscarriage, low birth weight, reproductive and sexual dysfunction, and altered cognitive and behavioral development. Unfortunately, there seems little chance the federal government will step in any time soon to protect pregnant women, even though scientists who study BPA say there is more than enough scientific evidence to warrant it.
The nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund (BCF) summarized the evidence that fetal exposure to BPA sets the stage for diseases in adulthood in a report titled “Disrupted Development: the Dangers of Prenatal BPA Exposure.” To minimize pregnant women’s exposure, a “Cans, Not Cancer” campaign was launched, pressuring manufacturers and policy makers to eliminate BPA from all food cans because dietary intake is thought to be the greatest exposure source.
Other organizations clamoring for restrictions on BPA include Environmental Working Group and Keep-A-Breast who just partnered in listing BPA in their dirty dozen most dangerous endocrine disrupters common in consumer products.
Unfortunately, federal BPA regulatory reform is stuck in quicksand, and tighter restrictions on BPA aren’t likely until consumers demand it. In the meanwhile, health advocacy groups want people to know anyone can minimize exposure to BPA through informed consumer choices.
The antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) almost no power to impose restrictions on the 84,000 chemicals in commerce today. Just 200 have been required to undergo safety testing, and only five have been banned.
Widespread cries for chemical policy reform finally produced a bipartisan-backed Senate bill aimed at modernizing TSCA by requiring EPA to identify and impose restrictions on riskier chemicals (Chemical Safety Improvement Act). The chemical industry, which squelched previous pushes for TSCA reform, is voicing general support. Industry sees the increasing chaos it will face as more states join the dozens of state and local governments already implementing their own chemical safety reforms.
However, many environmental health groups are withholding support because the bill pre-empts tougher restrictions passed by individual states.
BPA is also regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an “indirect food additive” that leaches into foods from can linings and polycarbonate packaging. However, FDA imposed a national BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012 only after manufacturers had already responded to public pressure by voluntarily removing BPA from those products and after 11 states had implemented their own prohibitions. Four states had banned BPA from infant formula packaging before FDA followed suit in July, 2013.
Over 90 percent of adults test positive for BPA. Moreover, BPA was detected in every sample in a recent study of fetal umbilical cord blood from pregnant women in California: Over one-third showed levels higher or comparable to those associated with developmental problems in animal studies.
Government’s foot-dragging on limiting exposure in pregnant women is rooted in an out-dated model for determining the toxicity of a substance. It assumes a “monotonic” relationship between dose and response, meaning very low doses have negligible impact and negative effects appear and worsen as the dose goes up.
However, an enormous body of recent research, pioneered by University of Missouri developmental biologist Frederick vom Saal, indicates that, when administered to pregnant animals, BPA produces more developmental havoc and adulthood diseases in the offspring when doses are below the government’s safety cut-off, probably because the body is designed to be sensitive to minute levels of hormones like estrogen.
The FDA claims to be continually reviewing the recent avalanche of low-dose studies but in 2012 concluded that “the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.”
California’s own ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups just took effect in July, but the state has not yet prohibited BPA in infant formula packaging. And, only Connecticut has yet prohibited BPA-containing cash register receipts.
Proposition 65 is California’s “right to know” law, requiring warning labels on products that contain possible carcinogens or reproductive toxicants. The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) added BPA as a reproductive toxicant to the Prop. 65 list in April 2013, but removed it just six days later because a lawsuit was filed in response by the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association. OEHHA’s chief counsel states that the judge involved felt BPA should be delisted until the case is decided, which could be a while.
However, BPA is likely to be targeted under California’s new Safer Consumer Products regulations which took effect Oct. 1. Instead of the piecemeal approach of banning single chemicals in specific products, the state will select classes of products, like food packaging or nail polish, and make manufacturers responsible for analyzing whether replacement of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives is possible. The first list of products to be examined might not be finalized for a year, however.
Groups like BCF are urging pregnant women not to wait for industry or government to act, but to adopt practical habits to avoid unnecessary risk from BPA.
Foremost is making meals from fresh ingredients in lieu of canned foods. A 2011 study from BCF and Silent Spring Institute documented an average 60 percent drop in urinary BPA levels when families avoided canned foods for just three days. But, when canned items are needed, reach for brands that claim to have already moved away from BPA-containing can linings — Eden Organics, Amy’s Kitchen and Annie’s Homegrown, to name a few.
Also avoid eating or heating foods in plastics, especially those labeled with the resin identification code #7 which includes polycarbonate plastics. Use glass or stainless steel containers for storing foods.
Minimize contact with cash register receipts, and wash hands before eating to remove BPA residues.
Lastly, keep the pressure on mainstream food companies, like Campbell’s Soup, Heinz and Nestle, which claim to be working toward eliminating BPA from all canned foods. The domino effect that will move industry and eventually government begins with the public.
Sarah Mosko is a licensed psychologist and sleep disorder specialist living in Southern California. A background in neurobiology and medical research enables her to delve into and explain current scientific research findings which show how our highly industrialized society is polluting our bodies and the environment.