Chemicals of very high concern
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a widely recognised endocrine disruptor prevalent in many household items. As we are now quite familiar with a lot of its problematic implications, products labelled BPA-free have now become increasingly available. This is, for example, the case with sippy cups, drinking bottles and linings of food cans.
Nonetheless, we still have a long way to go, as it is unfortunately not just BPA we need to look out for. Its common substitutes, known as BPS (bisphenol-S) or BPF (bisphenol-F) may be just as harmful.
Even though the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, it is still a regular component of food packaging such as liners of tins. In China, Canada, and the EU it is only restricted in a few items, but in 2015 France put a stop to it being used in all types of food containers. The European Chemical Agency has now labelled it as a “chemical of very high concern.”
What is the problem?
BPA is used for the manufacturing of polycarbonate (PC), and Bisphenol S (BPS) used to make polysulfone. Among other items, food packaging, plastic utensils and baby bottles are just a few examples of products made with PC, whereas the main usage of BPS is in thermal papers (the stuff used for receipts) and inks.
BPS and yet another member of the family, BPF (bisphenol-F), have also been detected in many everyday products, such as
- personal care products (e.g., body wash, hair care products, makeup, lotions, toothpaste)
- paper products (e.g., the currency now increasingly plastic-based, flyers, tickets, mailing envelopes, aeroplane boarding passes)
- food packaging (e.g., dairy products, meat and meat products, vegetables, canned foods, cereals).
A recent study by a team at the Korea Institute of Toxicology tested BPS and BPF on zebrafish embryos and larva to find evidence for the effects on thyroid function. They were able to establish that BPS and BPF are directly related to increased thyroid hormones levels. This finding will increase concerns about the growing trend of manufacturers substituting BPA in their products for these compounds, which are structurally similar at the molecular level but are much less well understood in terms of toxicity.
The CLARITY-BPA (The Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity) two-year guideline-compliant study of potential BPA toxicity in rats and its effects on all the parts of the nervous system and endocrine system as well as the reproductive organs (testes/ovaries). The results of the study have shown that BPA has an impact on fetal development although the aforementioned parts of the body are nor all affected in the same way. In some it can be transient, in others, it is likely to have longer-lasting effects. The full publication series is going to be expected this year (2019).
There is also some evidence that these chemicals make their way into our food. It should now be regarded as common sense not to microwave your food in plastic containers, but that is unfortunately not the only thing to look at for, as the plastic bags in which we store our cereals are likely to shed some minute particles of plastic which we then involuntarily ingest.
Luckily, however, these compounds do not seem to hang about in our bodies for too long, as a 2011 study was able to establish. Making your food up from scratch, eating home-cooked food and avoiding plastic packaging whenever possible for just a short amount of time resulted in significantly lower levels of BPA and the phthalate DEHP in the participants’ urine levels.
What can you do in your own household to reduce your exposure to BPA?
- Reduce plastic packaging: Buy food without packaging if you can (this is hard, I know). The main thing is to switch to glass or metal storage boxes at home (this is the reason I hoard glass jars).
- Reduce your consumption of bottled water or fruit juices or stop buying it altogether. Many places offer refill stations. But it is best to bring your own water anyway.
- There is no need for cling film – ditch it. Completely. Leftovers can go in a Pyrex bowl with a plate on top. And the glass bowl can then safely be used in a microwave. Another good alternative is reusable wraps.
- Avoid eating food from tins. Most of these are now lined with plastic resins to avoid the metal to corrode when in contact with the contents. Not a bad thought initially, but it is a bit like “from the frying pan into the fire”. Instead, it is much better to look for glass packaging and to buy fresh or dried food. The latter is especially true for beans and pulses.
- Avoid heating any plastics in the microwave or running them through the dishwasher. The heat releases BPA from the container into the food or drinks contained in it. A 2007 study found that the exposure to boiling water (100°C) increased the rate of BPA migration by up to 55-fold.
- Avoid touching receipts as much as possible. These mostly contain BPA or BPS which are absorbed into our skin.
After all, there is some reason for optimism as the choice is yours and increasingly so!