Two weeks after a landmark study found hormone-disrupting chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) are unsafe even in tiny doses, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would not ban the substance in food packaging, at least for now.
Since the FDA BPA ban is not happening, food manufacturers will continue to legally line metal food, beer, and baby formula cans with the hormone-disrupting, estrogen-like compound linked to health problems like irregular heart rhythm, behavioral problems in children, infertility, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes.
A lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2011 forced the FDA to consider a BPA ban in food packaging. In 2008, NRDC filed a petition to make a decision on BPA use in food products, but filed a lawsuit after FDA ignored the request for three years.
"BPA is a toxic chemical that has no place in our food supply. We believe FDA made the wrong call," says Sarah Janssen, PhD, senior scientist in the public health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The agency has failed to protect our health and safety - in the face of scientific studies that continue to raise disturbing questions about the long-term effects of BPA exposures, especially in fetuses, babies and young children."
More than 70 years ago, scientists purposely created BPA to mimic estrogen for use in pregnancy drugs. But once scientists discovered the chemical's ability to created strong, clear, rigid material, they started mass producing it and adding it to metal food and drink cans and water and baby bottles instead. Today, the chemical also coats cash register receipts, where it's readily absorbed through the skin. Multiple studies link BPA to health problems, although the FDA did not cite those studies in its decision. "The FDA is out-of-step with scientific and medical research," Janssen said in a statement. "This illustrates the need for a major overhaul of how the government protects us against dangerous chemicals."
Read More: What is a "Hormone Disruptor" Anyway?
A "Fatally Flawed" Study
One of the main studies FDA used when determining whether BPA is safe or not is also a study the chemical industry likes to promote. The 2011 study, led by energy and toxicology government scientists, including Justin Teegarden, fed 20 adults canned foods and then measured BPA levels in the urine and blood. Scientists and public health experts criticized the study that appeared in the journal Toxicology Sciences, saying it included several major flaws:
1. The study did not actually measure how much BPA was in the diet fed to people, although researchers claimed to be feeding people high-BPA diets. "This is a fatal flaw in the study," explains BPA expert Laura Vandenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow of biology at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts. You can't conclude that you administered high levels of BPA if you never measured it in the first place, she explains. Researchers didn’t disclose which manufacturers' products were used, either. That's important because BPA levels vary wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer and from product to product.
2. The Teegarden study cannot be considered a true biomonitoring study because the individuals were housed in a lab environment and their BPA was limited to the diet. "In the real world, people are exposed from a multitude of sources, including some that probably have not been identified," says Vandenberg.
3. A major part of the diet for the study was canned fruit, which is known to have much lower levels of BPA compared to canned vegetables and soups.
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4. The authors of the adult study conclude that BPA from food sources is safe for fetuses and newborns even though their study didn't include pregnant women, fetuses, or newborns.
The Real BPA Threat
In fact, fetuses are believed to face the highest risk when it comes to BPA and other hormone-disrupting chemicals because they're developing organics are much more sensitive to tiny doses than grown adults. "The doses of endocrine disruptors like BPA that can do damage in early life, like during the first months of pregnancy, are far lower than what causes injury in adult life," explains internationally-recognized pediatrician and epidemiologist Phil Landrigan, MD, professor and chair of the department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Teegarden seems to have missed that point entirely."
In fact, Vandenberg led a game-changing study that was released earlier in March. Looking at 800 previous studies involving hormone-disrupting chemicals, she and colleagues showed that there's virtually no safe dose of hormone-disrupting chemicals, and that, in fact, lower doses that are commonly untested could actually be very dangerous in terms of long-term health.
"This is a paradigm shift in toxicology. Literally, since the Middle Ages, toxicologists lived by the idea that the dose makes the poison," Landrigan says. "In other words, the greater the exposure the worse the damage.
"The new breakthrough is the realization that that old axiom doesn't hold up in early development," he adds. "More exposure is still worse, but it's equally true that the timing makes the poison."
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Consumer force is driving major food producers like Campbell's Soup, Heinz, and Hunt's to switch—or announce that they'll be switching—to BPA-free containers. The problem is, it's not clear if BPA-free cans and plastics are safe either because the replacements haven't been vigorously tested.
It's not just consumers calling for a change in food packaging rules, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the American Medical Association have all pushed the FDA to either label or ban BPA outright.
Tips to protect yourself from BPA:
Avoid canned food for now. Look for fresh or frozen foods to lower BPA exposure. During the growing season, you can often find good deals on organic produce.
Be container smart. Buy your food or drinks in glass or aseptic cartons (those cartons used for things like soy milk and boxed soups). Avoid heating plastic in the microwave or dishwasher, and opt for stainless steel, ceramic, or glass beverage and food containers.
Say no to frivolous receipts. If you're swinging by the coffee shop for a cup of java, ask for no receipt when you order. Most receipts are coated with BPA, and if you're skin is moisturized, you'll absorb more.