By guest blogger Alex Formuzis, of Environmental Working Group
Full disclosure: Over the years (though not in the last 15), I’ve been asked to leave several drinking establishments for various reasons. There was the Paragon Bar in Seattle, Charlie B’s Saloon in Missoula, Montana, Grumpy’s in Ketchum, Idaho, and The Blue Beat in Newport Beach, California. That last was a clear case of mistaken identity.
However, my early path through Western watering holes was relatively smooth in comparison to the road the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) has traveled in the last decade. Study after study by scientists from around the globe has connected the plastics and food-packaging ingredient with more than a dozen serious health problems, including reproductive system abnormalities, cancer, behavioral disorders, and diabetes. The list of states and localities across the U.S. that have 86ed baby bottles and sippy cups containing the substance has grown.
Now California, the most populous state in the country, is poised to declare BPA toxic to the human reproductive system under Proposition 65, the state’s consumer-products safeguards law. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment made its decision following a review of the 2008 National Toxicology Program study that was the first time a federal government agency expressed significant concerns about the adverse impacts of BPA exposure on human health. Proposition 65 requires a warning label on any item that contains a certain level of a toxic chemical like BPA. Ouch.
However, we’re not apt to see many actual warning labels on anything. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment intends to set a maximum allowable dose level of 290 micrograms per day. That’s far too high.
“No one should take away that [290 micrograms a day] is a “safe” level of exposure to BPA,” says Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Over the past five years, says Janssen, scientists have developed substantial evidence that “much lower levels of exposure, within the range that most people continue to be exposed to, are linked to harmful health effects, including cancer and metabolic disorders such as heart disease and obesity.”
As a practical matter, most people are exposed to BPA by consuming canned food and drinks. Those cans are lined with an epoxy lacquer that contains BPA. The chemical leaches into the can’s contents, but the concentration of BPA seldom reaches the 290-microgram level at which a label would be required. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, but permits its use in food cans.
Still, environmentalists believe the California decision will make more Americans aware of the dangers of BPA in cans. As Janssen puts it, “The significance [of California's decision] comes from the fact that BPA is about to be officially recognized as a reproductive hazard by a state regulatory agency. The listing puts manufacturers, retailers, and others on notice that BPA is a chemical that is not safe.” The accompanying publicity could persuade food and beverage companies to move to non-BPA can linings. The state is such a large retail market that no company would want to make one product line for Californians and another for everybody else.
Regardless, there are steps you can take to lower your exposure to BPA. You can avoid hard polycarbonate plastic water bottles marked # 7; not all #7 bottles are polycarbonate, but some are. And here are the two major ways you can limit your exposure to BPA:
- Avoiding canned foods. If you must use canned goods, look for canned food labeled as BPA-free (although, not all BPA-free products are BPA-free) or buy food packed in glass jars or waxed cardboard cartons. A few small companies, like Eden Organic, sell cans that are lined with non-BPA alternatives.
- Say no to receipts. A recent study found that 40 percent of store receipts are coated with BPA. The chemical can rub off on hands or food items. Some may be absorbed through the skin. Never give a child a receipt to hold or play with, and wash your hands before preparing and eating food after handling receipts. Do not recycle receipts and other thermal paper. BPA residues will contaminate recycled paper.
Alex Formuzis is vice president for media relations at Environmental Working Group. He came to EWG in 2007 after nearly a decade as a senior communications aide to three members of the United States Senate. Prior to his time on Capitol Hill, he was in the public affairs shop of the Clinton Treasury Department and worked on state and national campaigns in his native Washington state