Sunday, November 23, 2008

BPA: Background and Tips

Usually when I talk about going "beyond prenatals", I am referring to the importance of eating and serving nutritious food, rather than simply taking prenatal or children's vitamins. However, sometimes going “beyond prenatals” means thinking about non-food sources that can enter the food system and compromise the health of fetuses and children. BPA is one such intruder.

What is BPA?
BPA, or Bisphenol-A, is a chemical used in some plastics. It is also in the resins that line canned goods, infant formula, canned soda, and the inside of some baby food jar covers. Therefore, it is extremely likely that each of us consumes some amount of BPA on a regular basis. Most people have BPA in their urine, which indicates that BPA is being excreted from the body. This is a good thing. However, we know that not all BPA is expelled from our bodies; it is also found in blood and umbilical cords

The Food and Drug Administration and The American Chemistry Council consider BPA to be safe for human consumption at the relatively low levels at which they are currently ingested. In fact, in response to growing concern among consumer groups, the FDA issued a report in September that concluded that BPA was safe:

“Consumers should know that, based on all available evidence, the present consensus among regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan is that current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and babies.” (emphasis added)

However, on October 31st, a Science Board Subcommittee report pleaded with the FDA to reconsider. The scientific panel urged the FDA to consider additional articles indicating that low levels of BPA can indeed cause health problems. Without including these additional research articles in their "available evidence," the FDA could not accurately assess the risk of exposure to BPA. According to the Panel, the FDA also made false assumptions about how parents heat baby bottles - and the hotter the temperature, the more BPA leaches from the bottle into the milk. Furthermore, the FDA included in the study many articles funded by the plastics industry. Unsurprisingly, 100% of the research articles funded by the plastic industry (14 in total) concluded that there is no harm associated with BPA, while 92% of the articles funded by government (198 in total) indicated that BPA can cause harm.

Most importantly, the Panel implored the FDA to re-examine safety margins in order to ensure that fetuses, infants, and children are protected from any possible harm that BPA might cause. This is because these three groups are more susceptible to harm due to their still-developing systems. Hence the emphasis added to "immediate risk" in the above statement. As Dr. Leonardo Trasande, assistant director at the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NYC said in a NYT article, "Once they go off track, you can't hit the rewind button.”

What are the risks?

A representative from a major infant product company once told me that although they are transitioning to BPA-free products, they are merely doing it to placate moms; the research, the rep said, is inconclusive. I agree. Most of the research is done on animals and some of the research studies are equivocal.

To summarize very briefly:
Human studies
have indicated that BPA may be related to Polycystic Ovarian syndrome, recurrent miscariages, endometrial hyperplasia, and male fertility problems.
Animal research
has indicated that low levels of BPA may cause a range of health problems, including: ovarian disease; thyroid problems; prostate cancer; accelerated puberty and mammary gland development; chemotherapy interference; heart disease; diabetes; altered hormones; altered immune function; reduced antioxidant activity; and behavioral and brain effects. Many of these problems were detected in animals and infants born to mothers who consumed low doses of BPA.

While totally eliminating BPA intake is impractical and probably unnecessary, I think it makes sense to take some precautions to protect oneself from excess BPA consumption.

What you can do?

(in order from least to most taxing on your budget)

1. Breastfeed: Small amounts of BPA are found in infant formulas, as well as the breast milk of exposed mothers (read:most moms). This is simply the reality of living in a BPA contaminated world. Formula is usually placed into bottles that may or may not contain BPA, while breastmilk is usually fed directly from the source. Since infant formula may cause many other adverse health effects and breast milk has many properties in it to protect against pollutants, breastfeeding is still better than formula despite the small amount of possible BPA. Additionally, if there will be any damage from BPA, it is more likely to happen during pregnancy. If you cannot breastfeed or choose not to, choose powder formula instead of liquid. It absorbs less BPA from the formula packaging.

2. No heating or extended use: Most authorities have told us to stop using plastic #7. However a new investigation by the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel just reported that plastics #1, 2, and 5 leach BPA when they are heated. If you use products that contain BPA, do not wash them in the dishwasher. If you must, use the top shelf only. Once you see scratches or wear and tear, throw it away. Do not leave fluids in the BPA container for extended periods of time. Never heat breast milk or formula in a BPA-containing bottle.

3. Rinse: Wash all canned food items. It is unclear if this rids the BPA from the food, but it also reduces sodium, so you might want to be doing this anyway. I use a small colander from the Pampered Chef, but if you want to move away from all plastic, any small metal strainer or colander will do.

4. Supplement: If you are pregnant, be sure to take folic acid every day and eat some soy foods each week. Research shows that folic acid and genistein (a phytoestrogen found in soy) can reverse BPA damage.

5. Limit: Limit your consumption of canned items and canned soft drinks, with the exception of Eden Beans. Apparently, Eden Foods uses a different type of can for their beans, which is free of BPA. Look for tetra-packs for your drinks and tomatoes, and use frozen vegetables, fruit, and beans instead of canned. They retain more nutrients anyway.

5. Buy: If you are pregnant, or even if you are not, buy BPA-free drinking bottles and foodware. We just bought Kleen Kanteen bottles from Amazon. Currently our son uses a BPA-free Playtex straw cup. However, because of the investigation reported in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, I am going to purchase a Kleen Kanteen for him also. I am also trying to find stainless steel toddler sized plates, but there seems to only be one brand. For packed lunches, these Foogo storage containers look great. They make adult versions too.

Have you made any changes to reduce your BPA consumption? Tell us about it!

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