Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical found in many hard plastics and is used to make epoxy resin, which lines many food and drink products. But the use of BPA doesn’t end here; it is regularly used in medical and safety equipment, cars and other forms of transportation, and electronics such as TVs and smart phones. BPA is probably something you’ve heard of, as in recent years it has been the subject of much controversy and media scrutiny – but just why should you be avoiding it?
There are many things that divide opinion amongst the health community: grains, dairy, sunlight exposure, saturated fat; but BPA, or indeed the avoidance of it, is a subject that almost all experts seem to be able to agree on. Although it has been used since the 1950s, it is only in recent years and thanks to a number of clinical studies that the serious dangers associated with the chemical have started to be uncovered. Research is still ongoing, but up to this point, the following information has come to light:
- BPA is an endocrine disruptor – meaning it interferes with the production and utilisation of our body’s natural hormones. BPA has been shown to imitate our own body’s hormones, causing reproductive disorders such as impaired fertility in women1 and erectile dysfunction in men2. BPA also interferes with the function of the thyroid and adrenal glands, which can affect metabolism and cause weight gain3. On a laboratory test in mice, relatively small amounts of BPA reduced insulin sensitivity and accelerated the formation of fat cells – the combination of insulin and BPA showed a staggering 1300% increase in fat levels, compared with a 150% increase with insulin alone. Bad news for the ‘soft drinks’ industry.
- BPA raises the risk of heart disease and diabetes4
- BPA has been linked to potential problems with memory, learning and brain function. In a study conducted on primates, researchers linked BPA exposure to loss of connections between brain cells5, whilst it has also been connected with depression and behavioural difficulties in humans when exposed at an early age.6
- Babies, infants, and young children are thought to be especially sensitive to BPA, which has seen the chemical banned in baby bottles in the EU and Canada. However, high BPA levels in pregnant women has alarmingly been associated with abnormalities in their infant.7
- Studies have also linked BPA exposure to asthma and other respiratory problems8, as well as increasing the risk of breast cancer9.
If the mounting evidence against human BPA exposure wasn’t enough, BPA is also a damaging environmental toxin. Exposure to BPA has been shown to undermine the reproduction and development of all animal groups studied, whilst also being toxic to marine life and found to induce genetic abnormalities in amphibians and crustaceans. BPA is also a major soil pollutant, which can interfere with nitrogen fixation at the roots of plants.
Indeed, the evidence is pretty conclusive against a chemical that public authorities consider to be safe in small doses. ‘Safe’ BPA levels have been set, but in the light of new studies, there are growing calls from leading health experts to have these reviewed. Until authorities start to take more serious action against companies that use the chemical, how do we go about minimising exposure?
What to do
Whether we like it or not, BPA is a part of modern life; with the use of electronics and cars for most people on a daily basis, it is almost impossible to avoid it entirely. That said, we can all take steps to reduce our exposure to BPA - especially when it comes to the BPA that we consume, as this is by far the most problematic form that we encounter.
Perhaps the most simple strategy for avoiding BPA (whilst also optimising your health), is to avoid foods that come in a pack wherever possible. Focus on real, fresh, minimally processed foods; fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds. A recent study showed the dramatic results this can have – when switching to a ‘fresh food’ diet, the 20 test subjects showed a staggering reduction in BPA levels: an average of 60% in just three days10.
When purchasing foods with plastic packaging or in cans, choose certified BPA free wherever possible. A growing number of companies are now beginning to recognise the demand for BPA free products, which has seen a significant rise in the number of certified BPA free products available today. Whilst it is easier now than any time in the last 50 years to minimise BPA exposure, there will be times when it is still not possible – but simple steps in the right direction are enough to make a difference. On the occasions you do purchase plastic, a word of warning: BPA risks increase when the plastic is exposed to heat or radiation, so avoid microwaving plastics or leaving plastic bottles out in the heat.
Simple changes like swapping plastic water bottles for glass, or plastic lunchboxes for stainless steel, can make a world of difference to your BPA levels, and consequently, your health. Hopefully, as research against BPA continues to mount, it will become less and less prevalent in our food industry. Until that point, be aware of the risks, make informed decisions based on your knowledge, and you won’t have much to worry about.