Bisphenol-A (BPA) was first created by a Russian chemist in 1891, but wasn’t used in the manufacture of products until the 1950s when it was used to produce resilient and often transparent plastics. Today, BPA is found in countless personal care products, water bottles, cashier receipts and the lining of canned goods.
Although research shows BPA is detrimental to human health, the market was valued at over $13 billion in 2013 and expected to reach $20 billion in 2020.1 Unfortunately, as the demand for BPA-free products is rising, substitute chemicals that are nearly identical to BPA are being substituted and thought to produce the same negative human health effects.
Recently, a study from the University of Exeter determined the extent to which BPA is found in the human population. The study was a collaborative research project between community-based resources (high school students) and the University of Exeter researchers.
BPA Found in Nearly 90 Percent of Teens
The study tested the urine and blood of 94 students in Great Britain and found 86 percent of the teenagers had hormone-disrupting contaminants in their system. Although currently legal in Europe, the European Chemicals Agency reclassified BPA in 2017 as a substance of very high concern as it has probable serious effects on human health.
The research project was carried out in a real-world setting to provide students with the experience of scientific research. The students designed, participated in and published the study, including how changes in their lifestyle or diet may have an impact on the amount of BPA in their bodies.
The results support several previous studies, including one by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) that found detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of over 2,500 individual urine samples. This data is representative of exposure throughout the U.S., whereas the current study is a small sample of adolescent students from Great Britain.
The ubiquitous nature of BPA in the environment and marketplace makes it difficult to prevent exposure. Following the first round of testing, students were asked to avoid products that may contain BPA for one week. Follow-up testing revealed very little change in the students’ urine and blood samples despite the short time BPA stays in the body.
Tamara Galloway, Ph.D., ecotoxicologist from the University of Exeter, commented on the results of the study, saying:
“Our students who followed the BPA-free diet reported that it would be difficult to follow it long term, because labeling of BPA products was inconsistent. They found it difficult to source and identify BPA-free foods.ˮ
BPA can be found in plastics used to protect foods, in the lining of cans, on-the-go drink bottles, plastic shower curtains and store receipts, just to name a few. Printed thermal cashier receipts use BPA in the manufacture of paper designed to react to heat. Disturbingly, research has demonstrated using hand sanitizer may increase your risk of absorbing BPA from your environment by a factor of 100 or more by changing the permeability of your skin.
Following the study, the researchers from Exeter University called for better labeling on packaging in order to allow consumers to make healthier choices. Lorna Harries, Ph.D., co-author of the study from the University of Exeter Medical School, commented:
“Most people are exposed to BPA on a daily basis. In this study, our student researchers have discovered that at the present time, given current labelling laws, it is difficult to avoid exposure by altering our diet. In an ideal world, we would have a choice over what we put into our bodies. At the present time, since it is difficult to identify which foods and packaging contain BPA, it is not possible to make that choice.ˮ
Children Are at Increased Risk
BPA is an estrogenic endocrine disruptor. In other words, it represents a complex risk to human health by mimicking, or partially mimicking, hormones that naturally occur in your body. This can produce overstimulation, or interfere or block the way in which hormones are made or controlled. The interruption in the endocrine system may produce negative results in reproductive, neurological and immune systems of both children and adults.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, research demonstrates endocrine disruptors have the greatest risk when exposure occurs during prenatal and early childhood development, as this is when organ and neurological systems are being formed and completed. Other studies have demonstrated that BPA also places young children at risk for future heart disease, independent of heart conditions related to obesity.
Researchers have also uncovered a relationship between BPA and heart problems in adults. A research team from the University of Cincinnati studied how BPA affected male and female mice and found there is greater threat to a woman’s heart health from exposure to BPA than to a man. The aim of the study was to determine the effects on heart function.
Male and female mice exhibited changes to blood pressure and heart rate, however the female mice could not handle the BPA exposure as well. Researchers have also identified an association between BPA and egg maturation in humans, interference with the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and a suggestion that these actions may affect puberty, ovulation and lead to infertility.
Effect on Health Care Cost Is Substantial
The impact on health care costs has been considerable. In a study evaluating the cost impact in Europe, researchers found chemical exposures add at least $175 billion to annual health care costs. The study included only those chemicals with the highest probability of causation for disease. A broader analysis would likely have resulted in a greater burden of disease and even higher health care costs.
The researchers detailed costs that were related to obesity, neurological disorders and male reproductive disorders believed to be the result of exposure to BPA. But the data included only five percent of all known endocrine disruptors, making this the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., microbiologist and director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, commented:
“The point is that there is a wide variety of effects being seen in the general population related to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. We have increasing amount of data raising concerns about their use. We are seeing effects from [chemical] levels that are present in the general population.ˮ
Male impotence may also be affected. In one study, high levels of BPA increased the risk of problems with sexual desire, ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Studies have associated even low-dose levels of BPA with heart disease, blood pressure changes, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, breast and prostate cancers.
Endocrine Disruption Dangers Start in the Womb
Dangers begin when infants are exposed before birth. Exposure to BPA has the potential to affect the developing brain as demonstrated in a study where researchers found an association between infant girls exposed to BPA before birth and behavioral problems, including anxiety and over activity. There did not appear to be a link between BPA measured in a pregnant woman’s urine and male behavioral problems.
A study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) engaged the services of five laboratories to examine the umbilical cord blood of 10 African-American, Hispanic and Asian children. The researchers found more than 200 chemicals in each of the newborns, demonstrating the vulnerability of the developing infant to environmental exposure. Dr. Anila Jacob, senior scientist at EWG, commented on the results, saying:
“We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure. Their organ systems aren’t mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life.ˮ
Prenatal exposure may also increase your child’s risk of wheezing as they become toddlers. This places children at greater risk for short- and long-term problems associated with asthma, including shortness of breath, difficulty with weight maintenance, obesity and poor quality sleep. For some people, this may also lead to remodeling of their airway, causing a loss of lung function and alteration in mucus production.
Science Supports Claims BPA Is a Danger to Your Health
The number of independent, evidence-based scientific data continues to mount against the effects of BPA on human health. The United Nations Environmental Program in association with the World Health Organization produced a report outlining the negative health effects of BPA. However, the plastics industry has cast a doubt over this data. Both the sheer magnitude of distribution and convenience of the products produced make it difficult to determine how to reduce or eliminate this toxic chemical from human use.
It wasn’t until 2002 that one of the first international reports on endocrine disrupting chemicals was written and presented to the international community. Evidence continues to grow supporting scientific statements that synthetic chemicals disrupt the endocrine system and contribute to disease across an individual’s life span. But, as these chemicals are lucrative for manufacturers, the industry fuels the debate with industry-biased information, called “manufactured doubt,ˮ to cover their investment.
The term “manufactured doubtˮ originated as the information communicated is more sleight of hand than evidence-based, driving policy actions affected by personal values and financial gain rather than concern for health. In an effort to further muddy the waters, industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council has called for “sound scienceˮ in the evaluation of endocrine-disrupting chemical data.
The origin of the term “sound scienceˮ can be traced back to use during original studies on the safety of tobacco. Author and epidemiologist David Michaels, Ph.D., notes:
“The vilification of any research that might threaten corporate interests as ‘junk science’ and the sanctification of its own bought-and-paid-for research as ‘sound science’ is indeed Orwellian — and nothing less than standard operating procedure today. But to give credit where credit is due, the sound science/junk science dichotomy has worked wonders as a public relations gimmick and has gained widespread acceptance in the current debate over the use of scientific evidence as policy.ˮ
Despite a large body of scientific evidence that BPA poses a significant threat to the health of children and adults, the industry continues to assure their consumers that BPA is safe for children. The U.S. Toy Association states: “No federal or state jurisdiction has restricted the use of BPA and toys.ˮ And the British Plastics Federation asserts “that at current exposure levels, plastics containing BPA pose no consumer health risks for any age group.ˮ
Another Industry Assures You’re Safe While Covering Up Health Risks
The Devil We Know, a documentary released at the Sundance Film Festival, chronicles how former DuPont employees, residents and attorneys went up against the chemical company to expose the dangers of a toxin found in Teflon products. The chemical, C8, is found in stain and water-resistant apparel, dental floss and microwave popcorn bags, to name just a few.
However, C8 has been linked to six diseases, including testicular and kidney cancers, cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease, autoimmune diseases and reproductive problems. DuPont was aware that C8 was highly toxic yet continued to discharge it into the waterways around the manufacturing plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and sell it to the American public.
At first the company believed it was only those working in the factory who were affected by the chemical, but it wasn’t long before it became clear that those who lived outside the factory were actually exposed to higher amounts of the toxin. At this point the company sent a team to collect water samples downstream and found the chemical had indeed been transported far from the plant.
When residents began experiencing symptoms, including tumors in themselves and their pets, they initiated research that eventually led to evidence C8 was responsible for the illness in their community and that DuPont was fully aware of how they were poisoning their factory workers, residents and consumers.
Regulators Do Not Protect Your Health
These are but two examples of how regulators and governmental officials are either unable or unwilling to protect your health. In a commentary in Environmental Health News, epidemiologist, pediatrician and leading advocate of children’s health, Dr. Philip Landrigan, discusses the sad state of affairs that has befallen the environment and, by extension, human health. Exposure to toxins in your tap water, food, air and home increases your exposure to chemicals that have a history of triggering disease, illness and disability.
Children today are exposed to a far greater number of toxins than children just 20 years ago. Many of these chemicals have become widespread throughout the environment and found even in the deep trenches of the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. Biomonitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have routinely found toxins in umbilical cords as well as in the blood and urine of Americans of all ages.
In the U.S., chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise. In other words, manufacturers are given a free pass to use chemicals without evaluation for toxicity. Even after they’ve been proven to cause harm, action may not be taken. For example, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed an insecticide, chlorpyrifos, poses a significant threat to unborn babies, but EPA administrator Scott Pruitt refuses to take action.
It has become incumbent on you to take responsibility for reducing exposure by controlling your personal environment and reducing the number of chemicals and toxins used. Within your own home, you decide what products to purchase and what to leave at the store.
Voting with your pocketbook has a significant effect on manufacturers. Look for products that are organic and choose to eat a mainly whole food diet that does not come prepackaged in plastic. Reducing the number of pesticides in your body also reduces your personal risk to illness.
Consider the same process in your own yard and garden at home, using pesticides as the ultimate last resort rather than your first choice. Consider using a whole house water filter and filtering the air you breathe at home. Take precautions while driving in heavy traffic and use your influence with other parents and your school administration to change your child’s school environment.
Finally, you can take action on a larger scale in your own city or town, state or even nationally. Elected officials have an enormous influence on the health of your child. Landrigan points out that it’s important to remember democracy is not a spectator sport. For the health of your children and your grandchildren, everyone must become involved, even to the minimal extent of learning about government officials before you vote for them.
June 2, 2018