It's not a death sentence but rather, a clear warning. California just officially declared the canned food chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, what it is: toxic. The state announced its has included BPA on its Prop. 65 list, a collection of compounds that by state law must be labeled due to their known carcinogenic and/or reproductive damage properties.
The announcement won't outright ban the use of BPA, but it does mean that products that contain high levels of the chemical will require a warning label along the lines of "Warning: This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm." Its inclusion means that it's joining the likes of asbestos, benzene, mercury, and lead, which also require warning labels on products sold in California.
"The Prop 65 listing is yet another indictment of this toxic chemical that industry continues to argue is safe, despite waves of peer-reviewed scientific studies finding that BPA harms reproduction and is linked to breast cancer," says Gretchen Lee Salter, policy manager at the Breast Cancer Fund.. "And the listing is happening the same week that the French government began warning pregnant women to avoid BPA because fetal exposure has been linked to later-life breast cancer. This is a seriously toxic chemical that none of us should be exposed to."
The decision to add BPA to the Prop. 65 list isn't based on a hot-off-the-presses new study, although plenty suggest that BPA is bad news. Instead, regulators took data from a 2008 National Toxicology Program report that noted some concerns related to BPA exposures, including the effect the chemical might have on developing fetuses, from damage to the male reproductive tract to changes in brain development and the genesis of behavioral problems.
Read More: What Is a "Hormone Disruptor?"
In recent years, independent scientists have piled on even more studies suggesting BPA's range of damage is robust. Long known as a chemical that tinkers with vital hormonal processes that regulate everyday bodily functions, scientists discovered in recent years that low doses of BPA appear to also trigger abnormal heart rhythms, suggesting a possible association between BPA and heart attacks. "The acknowledgement of this body of science is incredibly important, and will likely lead to protective actions," says BPA expert Laura Vandenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow of biology at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "
Because BPA interferes with your body's ability to produce and regulate estrogen, testosterone, insulin, and other hormones in a normal way, the chemical is implicated in diseases like breast and prostate cancers, along with type 2 diabetes and obesity. A 2013 study published in the journal Kidney International found BPA promotes oxidative stress that can damage tissue, opening up the door for heart and kidney problems.
Read More: The Truth about Canned Soup
Despite BPA's inclusion on the Prop. 65 list, experts say that BPA-containing soup and other canned foods likely won't carry a warning label. That's because California's proposed maximum allowable dose of BPA is set rather high, exceeding levels found in most food containers, according Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, senior health scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council. But her group is vowing to fight to lower the maximum allowable dose to better protect the average consumer.
A few years ago, the FDA banned BPA's use in infant food containers, but not because the agency deemed it harmful but because consumer backlash had led to manufacturers removing it from their entire product lines. Essentially, the FDA banned it because it was no longer being used in those instances. But growing research shows that BPA is most harmful when fetuses are developing in the womb, not when they're toddlers drinking juice from plastic cups. So until BPA is taken out of adult food and drink packaging, developing fetuses will continue to be exposed to the damaging chemical. "California has often been at the front of public health decision-making in the U.S., particularly when it comes to chemical safety," Vandenberg says. "It is certainly plausible that the addition of BPA to Prop. 65 will set off a chain reaction, at least in some other regions of the country."
Here's how to get BPA out of your diet:
• Find something better than plastic. BPA hides out in polycarbonate (some #7) plastics, so avoid plastic water bottles and food containers whenever possible. When you do use plastic, don't let it overheat. High temperatures from microwaves and dishwashers can accelerate leaching. Even leaving a plastic water bottle in a hot car could be trouble. Use food-grade stainless steel, ceramic, or glass instead of plastic whenever possible.
• Avoid canned foods. Most canned-food liners contain BPA, with varying levels of the chemical leaching into your food. Eden Foods is one company that uses a vegetable-based can coating instead of BPA or its chemical cousins.
• Don't always trust "BPA free." "BPA-free" packaging may make you feel better, but a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found bisphenol S, or BPS, a common replacement, behaves similar to hormone-disrupting BPA. "I think sometimes there is too much focus on this one chemical. It's not that environmental health scientists have a grudge against BPA," explains Vandenberg. "But thinking that replacements are automatically safer than BPA is simply wrong, especially when some of these replacements are also endocrine disruptors."
Should that prevent the addition of BPA to Prop. 65? "Certainly not," Vandenberg adds. "But should it cause public health officials to take an additional look at the chemicals used as BPA alternatives? I definitely think so."
• Write off unwanted receipts. Many thermal-printed receipts come with a costly health risk: a BPA veneer. The chemical coating readily transfers from the receipts and onto—and into—your skin, so avoid taking receipts for trivial purchases that you're likely to just throw away anyway.
Updated April 12, 2013