It seems that plastic is just about everywhere you look. The pipes that water our gardens and bring water into our homes are made of it, our toothbrushes and hairbrushes are made of it, water bottles are made of it, as are milk jugs, food storage containers and the lining of food cans.
But over the last few years there has been increasing worry that plastics may not be as safe as were once thought. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that even low-dose exposure to chemicals contained in many plastic products may have harmful effects.
The chemical of greatest concern is bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA is used in the production of a wide variety of plastic products. Polycarbonate plastics, such as hard drinking water bottles and baby bottles, contain BPA. BPA is also used in the resin that coats the lining of metal food cans.
People are regularly exposed to BPA through their diet. This happens when the chemical leaches from food or beverage containers, and the food or beverage is then consumed.
Although the amount of BPA that winds up in food and drink is thought to be quite low, exposure to the chemical is widespread. In 2003-2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected urine samples from more than 2,500 Americans ages six and older. Detectable levels of BPA were found in over 90% of them.
Numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the safety of BPA--most of the research, however, has been performed in animals. In 2008, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) examined all of the research that had been done to date. Based on their review, the NTP has “some concern” that current levels of BPA exposure could result in health problems, particularly in fetuses, infants and children. “Some concern” represents the mid-point of a five-level scale that ranges from “negligible” to “serious”.
Infants and fetuses appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of BPA than adults. Unfortunately, BPA has been detected in breast milk. Despite this, the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend breastfeeding for at least 12 months whenever possible, as the numerous health benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any potential risk associated with BPA exposure from breast milk.
Currently, there’s not enough scientific data to provide hard and fast recommendations or guidelines regarding plastics. The impact of exposure to low-dose BPA simply isn’t known. Additional research studies evaluating the potential health consequences of BPA are necessary to clarify uncertainties about its risk.
For now, it may be prudent to reduce exposure to plastics containing BPA, particularly in infants, children, and women who are pregnant. There are several easy ways to do so:
- Replace plastic food containers with glass ones. Or, if you use plastic containers, don’t microwave food or liquids in them as high temperatures accelerate the rate at which plastic breaks down.
- Whenever possible, substitute non-BPA-containing products for those that contain this chemical. Some, but not all plastic products identified with a 3 or 7 on the bottom may contain BPA. Plastics displaying the numbers 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 are typically BPA-free.
- Use fewer canned foods. For example, substitute fresh or frozen fruits and dried beans for those that come in cans.
- Don’t ever place hot foods or liquids like coffee, tea or soup into plastic containers. Choose glass, porcelain or stainless products instead.
- Avoid baby bottles that contain BPA. Although many of the major manufacturers no longer produce bottles containing BPA, there are still bottles on the market that do.
Bisphenol A (BPA) - Questions and Answers about Bisphenol A (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)