"I would love to see it banished off the face of the Earth."
April 7, 2007 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Bisphenol A: this extremely common chemical leaches out of food packaging and plastics, and was long considered safe. But a number of recent studies link it to developmental problems and cancer in lab animals in doses far lower than the current regulatory limit. Canada and the United States both review the scientific data available in the coming months, but critics already worry the process will be corrupted by industry. Industry, of course, insists that BPA is safe.
posted by mek (31 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I admit that my morning Globe&Mail scared me into making this FPP.
posted by mek at 10:20 AM on April 7, 2007

Well "safe" is always relative. Banning these substances because they cause a slight increase in cancer risk is silly, and you can never reduce cancer risk to zero, no matter what you to do.

If there is a significant increase in cancer risk, then obviously it should be banned.
posted by delmoi at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2007

That's an awful lot of "ifs," but I'll be keeping my eyes on this.
posted by lekvar at 10:39 AM on April 7, 2007

Cancer isn't the only risk.

Interesting that the study outcomes are so sharply divided along funding lines.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:40 AM on April 7, 2007

Human life causes cancer in humans. News at 10.
posted by po at 11:12 AM on April 7, 2007

This may be a significant concern for those who work with large quantities of epoxy, specifically boat builders. For these applications, epoxy is sold in one gallon or even five gallon containers. At least two businesses here in the Seattle area, Fiberlay and System Three Epoxy, supply huge amounts of epoxy for home and business use. At this moment, I have at least a gallon of the stuff in my basement. Though I always wear rubber gloves while working with epoxy, I would imagine my exposure to Bisphenol A would exceed that of many other people. And I drink out of a Nalgene bottle...

Thanks for the links, MEK.

Say, does that stand for Methyl Ethyl Ketone?
posted by Tube at 11:17 AM on April 7, 2007

A really bad day for the proponents of disposable living. I note for posterity that the health store movement is somewhat responsible for spreading the bottled water revolution, although not without reason.
posted by Brian B. at 11:52 AM on April 7, 2007

Tube, the point made in the article is that certain substances which mimic hormonal chemicals are actually MORE toxic in SMALLER quantities than they are in large quantities. According to this article, you might be fine to drink those five gallon tubs of epoxy, but you would be at great risk to ingest a microscopic amount. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the body is very sensitive to small amounts of hormones and it shuts down its reaction to an overwhelming level. Its like throwing a party for your friends. As they trickle in, you're happy to see them, but when everyone calls 10 of their friends and 500 people show up at your door, you close the doors and kick everyone out.
posted by PigAlien at 11:55 AM on April 7, 2007

It's not just cancer. It's a variety of different genetic ailments that can follow having your chromosomes and hormones screwed with while your body is developing.

Over 100 studies published in peer-reviewed journals show that BPA is biologically active at extremely low exposures (a few nanograms per kilogram of body weight). In some cases, a single exposure of BPA has been show to have effects four generations downline.

Here's what the Journal of the American Medical Association says about low-dose endocrine disruptors, including BPA.

I'm not sure if MEK's links reference this, but BPA is also used to make baby bottles. Here's a report from Enviroment California documenting the leaching levels for several brands. The report also has a good summary of the research on the low-dose effects of BPA. A few days after the report was issued, a big-time ambulance chaser filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the baby bottle companies.

The plastics industry has managed to keep this issue buried for years. It's disgraceful. But at this point I think that the body of evidence against the chemical has grown to the point that food and baby bottle companies will have to stop using it. It's just not worth the financial risk, whatever they think of the definitiveness of the science.
posted by alms at 11:59 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh --- in terms of baby bottles. BPA is clear hard plastic. Think Nalgene bottles (which are also made from BPA). So you want to look for baby bottles that are made out of the softer, cloudy plastic. Or glass.
posted by alms at 12:01 PM on April 7, 2007

This (pdf, from these folks) is a simple guide to the recycling numbers on our plastics.

Brief summary: #7 (other) is the category that includes bisphenol A. #3 (PVC) and #6 (ploystyrene) have their own carcinogenic traits. #1, #2, #4, #5 = not so bad.

Geez, "conscious consumer"ism just gets more and more complex...
posted by marlys at 12:01 PM on April 7, 2007 [6 favorites]

"Manufacturers altered their process between 1993 and 1996, using materials that can break down and dissolve in as little as two to three years." Domestic source::Heat + plastic + water?
posted by acro at 12:28 PM on April 7, 2007

We're all consuming a lot of chemistry ... and as a result we're all part of an ongoing experiment.

What's important is that we're apprised of the risks ... rather than being kept ignorant ... so that we can make informed "free market" choices. Like we did with cyclamates. Benzene/phenol, like polychlorination, have been part of some very iffy inventions.
posted by Twang at 12:32 PM on April 7, 2007

... and sous vide?
posted by acro at 12:42 PM on April 7, 2007

Name's just a name, not an acronym, I'm afraid!

There are a number of companies out there (here's one) manufacturing BPA-free baby bottles.

One of the major sources of BPA ingestion is actually canned food; the interior lining of the cans is made of the stuff, and since all canned food is heated, quite a bit of it leaches into the foodstuff.

Personally I'm not going to avoid plastics/canned food any more than I already do (food snob alert), but it will be very interesting to see what happens in the next few months at the regulatory level.
posted by mek at 12:51 PM on April 7, 2007

A really bad day for the proponents of disposable living.

I thought the reusable bottles for my baby were hardly examples of disposable living. Anyhow, thanks for the panic. After reading some articles on the subject, I think that there seems to be little cause to worry, one Harvard meta-study concluded:

In the case of BPA, the evidence considered by the panel suggests that the weight of the evidence for low-dose effects is very weak. Studies are conflicting, the effects are subtle with questionable functional importance if real, and there are data that conflict with the proposed mechanism of action. As more information is developed it can be incorporated into our framework to further refine the state of the science around low-dose effects of BPA.

Still, I think I am going to go out and buy some non-BPA bottles. It seems like a small price to end the anxiety.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:39 PM on April 7, 2007

This was also covered in an old AskMeFi post.
posted by jmd82 at 3:07 PM on April 7, 2007

Sunoco makes BPA at a plant in Haverhill, Ohio which you can see is right on the Ohio River. I imagine that might be a good place to look for the effects of groundwater contamination, etc, or maybe not, who knows.
posted by The Straightener at 3:45 PM on April 7, 2007

Lucky Canada. Their companies have to prove their products are safe.

Whereas the US government has to prove a product is dangerous.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:30 PM on April 7, 2007

Bisphenol A has been known to leach from the plastic lining of canned foods and to a lesser degree plastics which are cleaned with harsh detergents or used to contain acidic or high temperature liquids. Infants fed with concentrated (canned) infant formula have among the highest exposures of anyone eating canned foods. Infants fed canned formula with polycarbonate bottles can consume quantities of bisphenol A up to 13 µg/kg/day.

From the Wikipedia link.
posted by moira at 5:42 PM on April 7, 2007

As time goes on I feel we are more and more like the Romans and their fancy lead pipe plumbing.
posted by roguewraith at 5:43 PM on April 7, 2007

Lucky Canada. Their companies have to prove their products are safe.

I see no lack of plastic around here. Unless Type 7 plastics are banned in Canada, I rather doubt we're home-free.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:32 PM on April 7, 2007

The wikipedia article says that BPA is used as a polymerization inhibitor in PVC. I don't really know enough chemistry to know if that means it's only present before the PVC has set/formed, or if it remains in the final product. I do find it a bit interesting that if it is in the final PVC product then there are probably hundreds of thousands of miles of everyday household water supply pipe from which this stuff could leach out of. (It's interesting because of the parallel between the lead pipe analogy given in at least one of those links.)

It seems a bit tinfoil-hat to try to entirely rid one's self from this compound, given how ever-present it is and how inconclusive the science seems to be. But I guess not using polycarbonate baby bottles is easy enough. I don't think you'll get much traction with avoiding canned food though. Even if you ban them from your home, my guess is that given the amount of ingredients used in food service that come canned, you would be hard pressed to rid yourself of this compound unless you grow and cook 100% of the nutrients you consume.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:43 PM on April 7, 2007

I just saw an article on a study where the peak effect observed was at .23 parts per trillion.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:55 PM on April 7, 2007

Lucky Canada. Their companies have to prove their products are safe.

Isn't that kinda like trying to prove a negative, in that it's basically impossible?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:17 AM on April 8, 2007

I bought the damn BPA-free baby bottles. They cost $10 a piece. I have no idea whether that is just the typical Whole-Foods-style markup or an actual production cost issue.

They baby seems happy with them, though.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:12 AM on April 8, 2007

I bought the damn BPA-free baby bottles. They cost $10 a piece. I have no idea whether that is just the typical Whole-Foods-style markup or an actual production cost issue.

The "b-truly-free" bottles, or whatever they're called, are very expensive regardless of where you buy them. I don't know whether that reflects an inherent production cost (I believe the bottles are made from polyethersulfone), or just the fact that this is a small company with relatively small production.

However, you don't have to buy b-truly-free. Just buy polypropylene bottles, which are available in most grocery stores and pharmacies. They don't contain any bpa. You can tell polypropylene because the plastic is slightly cloudy and flexible, as oppoed to the crystal clear and hard polycarbonate.
posted by alms at 8:36 AM on April 8, 2007

If it's harmful at low doses and is somewhat ubiquitous, why don't those who are worried *increase* their doses to levels at which it isn't harmful?

Seems a lot easier than trying to reduce exposure when you don't know how much exposure you have.

of course, if this worked, it would be really odd for the activists: they'd have to suggest we buy more from evil industry in order to reduce harm caused by their evil products!

there's other data suggesting that with some toxins, low dose exposure is actually *good for you* because it activates natural defenses, while high doses are harmful.

the whole discipline of toxicology is going to have to come to grips with these paradoxical effects at some point and the complexities they introduce, if this proves to be true.
posted by Maias at 10:23 AM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ooh, Maias, I think you've struck gold! "BPA Once-A-Day" multipoisons!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:27 PM on April 8, 2007

Megnut post warning of sous vide 'transference' links, here
posted by acro at 4:50 PM on April 28, 2007

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