Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the lining of food packaging that contaminates a wide range of manufactured food products, has been linked to several serious health risks. A brief study based on limited sampling by the Consumers Union (CU) has found significant levels of BPA in a wide variety of canned food. The levels in some instances could approach those known to cause harm in animal studies. What is interesting is that levels were detected in products labelled “BPA Free”.

A full list of products tested and levels detected is available here.

The CU acknowledged that the study was limited, stating the tests “convey a snapshot of the marketplace and do not provide a general conclusion about the levels of BPA in any particular brand or type of product tested.”

The BPA levels detected in canned foods ranged from 0.3 parts per billion (ppb) to 191ppb. The highest level was detected in canned Del Monte Fresh Cut Green Beans Blue Lake but its levels ranged to a low of 35.9 ppb. Progresso Vegetable Soup BPA levels ranged from 67 to 134 ppb, while Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had BPA levels ranging from 54.5 to 102 ppb.

It is troubling to note that some products one might expect to have no BPA food contamination actually did contain BPA. For example, “Vital Choice’s tuna in ‘BPA-free’ cans were found to contain an average of 20 ppb of BPA and those of Eden Baked Beans in “BPA-free” cans averaged 1 ppb BPA.”

A letter from the CU to the FDA pointed out that, based on average levels detected, one serving of the Del Monte green beans sample or Progresso soup sample could “easily lead a consumer to exceed the FDA Culmulative Exposure Daily Intake (CEDI) level of 0.185µ/kg-bw/day” (that’s zero point 185 micrograms per kilograms of body weight per day – the assumed daily consumption of most people by the FDA). Of more concern, it added, was that one serving of the highest level could expose a small child of 22lbs to a “level that nears or exceeds those that have been shown to cause harm in animal studies published in scientific literature (2.4µ/kg-bw/day).”

BPA is commonly encountered in canned foods since it is used in the epoxy placed on the cans’ linings. However BPA is also used in the manufacture of polycarbonate used for food containers, including such things as babies bottles. Even if you never eat canned foods you could still become exposed to BPA. Indeed, studies by the CDC found bisphenol A in the urine of 95% of adults sampled in 1988–1994 (Calafat AM, Kuklenyik Z, Reidy JA, Caudill SP, Ekong J, Needham LL (2005). “Urinary concentrations of bisphenol A and 4-nonylphenol in a human reference population”. Environ. Health Perspect. 113 (4): 391–5. PMID 15811827).

Health Canada announced in 2008 that the sale, import and advertising of the chemical in baby products would be banned. That is a good start for Canada but it fails to go far enough.

Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor, which can mimic the body’s own hormones. Earlier this year the Endocrine Society released a scientific statement expressing concern over current human exposure to BPA.

Various ill-effects from BPA have been identified in animal studies. Several studies have either linked the chemical to diseases or raised serious questions about probable links to pathologies in humans. These include obesity, breast cancer risk, neurological conditions, and thyroid function.

In spite of the growing human data and findings of cancer links in animal studies conservative authorities, known for being slow to admit a need to change their opinions (and regulations), still support the use of BPA. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand even goes so far as to boldly state:  “Bisphenol A does not cause cancer.” (http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/newsroom/factsheets/factsheets2008/bisphenolabpaandfood3898.cfm).

The FDA is considering its opinion and is due to make an announcement by the end of this month. Chemical makers are watching the decision carefully since they have a lot at stake. Last year sales of bisphenol A topped $6 billion worldwide. Why is it that this figure alone reduces confidence that the FDA will actually put people’s health needs first in their thinking? Could it be the FDA’s track record perhaps? Their whole modus operandi?

The Journal Sentinel reviewed 258 studies on bisphenol A in 2007 and found that an overwhelming number of the tests conducted by independent scientists showed the chemical caused health problems in laboratory animals, including cancer, obesity, hyperactivity and diabetes. Studies paid for by the chemical industry, however, almost never found harm.

Is it any wonder that the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), the American Chemistry Council (ACC), as well as food giants such as Del Monte, Campbell and General Mills have all reaffirmed the safety of BPA and decried the findings of the CU study? They are merely following a recognisable script. What else could they say? Who in their right mind would give them any credibility? Judging by past performance, the FDA and other regulators might.

Some state authorities have grown weary of the FDA’s predictable behaviour. Attorneys general from New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut sent letters to the makers of baby bottles and baby formula containers urging them to discontinue use of bisphenol A. “Unfortunately, the federal Food and Drug Administration has been asleep at the switch, in fact resistant to respecting the scientific evidence that grave harm can result in use of this product,” said Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut’s attorney general.

So take responsibility for yourself. Do what you can to avoid BPA consumption. Use glass containers rather than plastic or polycarbonate, eat fresh foods rather than canned. When it comes to feeding babies, breast feed if you possibly can and do not be put off lightly, it is by far the best way to go. And let us hope that regulators will have the intelligence, morality and courage to ban BPA completely from anything connected to the food chain.

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