body is probably home to a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA.
It’s a synthetic
estrogen that United States factories now use in everything from plastics
to epoxies, to the tune of six pounds per American per year. That’s a lot
More than 92 percent of Americans
have BPA in
their urine, and scientists have linked it — though not conclusively — to
everything from breast cancer to obesity, from attention deficit disorder
abnormalities in boys and girls alike.
Now it turns out it’s in our food.
Consumer Reports magazine tested an array of brand-name canned foods for a
report in its December issue and found BPA in almost all of them. The
magazine says that relatively high levels turned up, for example, in
Progresso vegetable soup, Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle soup, and
Del Monte Blue Lake cut green beans.
The magazine also says it found BPA in the canned liquid version of
Similac Advance infant formula (but not in the powdered version) and in
canned Nestlé Juicy Juice (but not in the juice boxes). The BPA in the
food probably came from an interior coating used in many cans.
Should we be alarmed?
The chemical industry doesn’t think so. Steven Hentges of the American
Chemistry Council dismissed the testing, noting that Americans absorb
quantities of BPA at levels that government regulators have found to be
safe. Mr. Hentges also pointed to a new study indicating that BPA exposure
did not cause abnormalities in the reproductive health of rats.
But more than 200 other studies have shown links between low doses of BPA
and adverse health effects, according to the Breast Cancer Fund, which is
trying to ban the chemical from food and beverage containers.
“The vast majority of independent scientists — those not working for
industry — are concerned about early-life low-dose exposures to BPA,” said
Janet Gray, a Vassar College professor who is science adviser to the
Breast Cancer Fund.
Published journal articles have found that BPA given to pregnant rats or
mice can cause malformed genitals in their offspring, as well as reduced
sperm count among males. For example, a European journal found that male
mice exposed to BPA were less likely to make females pregnant, and the
Journal of Occupational Health found that male rats administered BPA had
less sperm production and lower testicular weight.
This year, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that
pregnant mice exposed to BPA had babies with abnormalities in the cervix,
uterus and vagina. Reproductive Toxicology found that even low-level
exposure to BPA led to the mouse equivalent of early puberty for females.
And an array of animal studies link prenatal BPA exposure to breast cancer
and prostate cancer.
While most of the studies are on animals, the Journal of the American
Medical Association reported last year that humans with higher levels of
BPA in their blood have “an increased prevalence of cardiovascular
disease, diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities.” Another published study
found that women with higher levels of BPA in their blood had more
Scholars have noted some increasing reports of boys born with malformed
genitals, girls who begin puberty at age 6 or 8 or even earlier, breast
cancer in women and men alike, and declining sperm counts among men. The
Endocrine Society, an association of endocrinologists, warned this year
that these kinds of abnormalities may be a consequence of the rise of
endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and it specifically called on regulators
to re-evaluate BPA.
Last year, Canada became the first country to conclude that BPA can be
hazardous to humans, and Massachusetts issued a public health advisory in
August warning against any exposure to BPA by pregnant or breast-feeding
women or by children under the age of 2.
The Food and Drug Administration, which in the past has relied largely on
industry studies — and has generally been asleep at the wheel — is
studying the issue again. Bills are also pending in Congress to ban BPA
from food and beverage containers.
“When you have 92 percent of the American population exposed to a
chemical, this is not one where you want to be wrong,” said Dr. Ted
Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “Are we going
to quibble over individual rodent studies, or are we going to act?”
While the evidence isn’t conclusive, it justifies precautions. In my
family, we’re cutting down on the use of those plastic containers that
contain BPA to store or microwave food, and I’m drinking water out of a
metal bottle or stainless steel cup now. In my reporting around the world,
I’ve come to terms with the threats from warlords, bandits and tarantulas.
But endocrine disrupting chemicals — they give me the willies.