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What is BPA?

Updated on 29. Sep. 2020

Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical that is used in the making of plastics and an epoxy that coats metal. It is used in everything from making CDs and safety glasses to baby bottles and lining cans of food. In the past decade or so, BPA has become a major health concern for consumers, leading stores to remove BPA-containing products from their shelves and producers to remove the compound from products and place large “BPA-Free” assurances on labels.

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BPA was first synthesized in the 1800s, but it was not until the 1930s, when a scientist discovered BPA's estrogenic properties, that scientists started to look at it more closely.  A decade after this discovery, a scientist discovered a relative of BPA and used it as an estrogen supplement that women took to help combat symptoms associated with menstruation and pregnancy. For the next three decades, women were prescribed this medicine, called DES, while they were pregnant, until a study found that the female children of the women treated with DES developed rare forms of vaginal cancers.

During this same time, DES was being given to meat-producing animals to promote growth and increase meat yields. After the study was published, women were no longer prescribed DES and the Food and Drug Administration banned farmers from using it.

After this, scientists shifted their focus to the industrial use of BPAs. The creation of BPA epoxy was first, which was used for everything from food-can lining to teeth sealant. A few years later, it was discovered that BPA could be made into a hard, clear plastic that was extremely strong. The chemical industries immediately saw the potential of this new material and began using it to make baby bottles, safety glasses, food containers, and more.

This newfound discovery seemed to make everyone forget about the dangerous estrogenic properties that BPA displayed. For the next 50 or so years, it was used for both household and industrial purposes. As of 2009, about 6 billion pounds of BPA were being produced per year around the globe.1 While plastics and epoxy contain BPA, it is also found in thermal receipts and in the environment. Even though it was determined that BPA was an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with how hormones are processed, transmitted, and produced in the body, BPA was continually used as a component of many consumer goods.  

This all changed in 2008 when an article from the Washington Post came out and cited multiple studies that indicated the possible danger of widespread exposure to BPA. This was enough to get consumers talking, and soon retailers began to remove BPA-containing products from their shelves and producers were sent scrambling to find an alternative and mark their products as “BPA-Free.”

As a result of this consumer concern, the Canadian government classified the chemical as toxic. However, the US FDA and the European Food Safety Authority decided that BPA was, in fact, safe at the levels most humans were exposed to. Despite this, Congress passed a bill that banned the use of BPA in food containers intended for use by children. A version of this law is in effect in a small handful of states.

The government's claims that BPA is safe in levels at which we are exposed is clouded by the research behind these statements. The studies they reference were found to have been funded by those in the chemical industry, who produce and profit from BPA-containing products. While these industry-funded studies found that BPA should be of no concern, studies conducted by outside scientists (not funded by the chemical industry) found that BPA may lead to an increased risk of cancers, reproductive issues, metabolic issues, and other health concerns. It should be noted that these studies were conducted in animals (mostly rodents), which it is not entirely clear whether their systems are good indicators of how the human body would react.

There have been over 1,000 studies conducted on animals concerning the effects of BPA on the body, and the vast majority of those studies have found that it has a harsh impact on the body. In contrast, of the dozen or so studies that were conducted by scientists funded by the chemical industries, the same ones who produce BPA, none showed evidence of danger from BPA exposure. In fact, scientists found that 90% of the independent studies they reviewed showed that there were health risks associated with the exposure to BPA while none of the industry-funded studies came to that conclusion.1

The problem is that BPA seeps into food, especially when heated. Since one of the most common uses of BPA is in food containers, this is a huge concern. The concern is especially alarming for infants and small children, as they are more impacted by the chemical. Children and infants are also exposed to plastics and BPA epoxy from the bowls and bottles they use at mealtime to the cans that infant formula comes in.

While more research needs to be done about the health implications of BPA exposure in humans, the number of studies showing it has negative health impacts in animals is cause for concern. Whenever possible, avoid items that contain BPA and never heat or serve hot food in a plastic container. If you are unsure as to whether a can is lined with BPA-containing epoxy or if a plastic is made with BPA, you should Google-search the specific product, or you can give the producer a call to get more information about their methods and the chemicals they use.

1. Vogel, Sarah A. “The Politics of Plastics: The Making and Unmaking of Bisphenol A “Safety”.  American Journal of Public Health. American Public Health Association, Nov. 2009. Web.

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