Photo: Andrew ScottSomething tells me that Congress will not be banning your favorite endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A anytime soon, even though Canada has. Just a theory. But while the political prospects for BPA’s demise are dropping, the scientific landslide of data set off by recent revelations and press reports regarding the chemical rolls on.
In news that hits a guy where it hurts, scientists from Kaiser Permanente showed that men with higher levels of BPA exposure were two to four times more likely to have fewer sperm overall, fewer live sperm, and poor semen quality. Ouch. Although the BPA levels in Chinese workers involved in the study were still within EPA safety guidelines, the semen problems were severe enough, according to a UCSF reproductive expert not involved with the study, to cause infertility.
Meanwhile, a group of government and university scientists (including Linda Birnbaum, director of the U.S. government’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) conducted the first peer-reviewed study to detect BPA levels in U.S. food products (study). They confirmed earlier work by Consumer Reports showing that canned foods do indeed test positive for BPA, though at highly variable levels. And poor Del Monte: the scientists identified Del Monte green beans as having some of the highest BPA levels of any product on store shelves.
But the researchers also looked at plastic-wrapped fresh foods and meats to see if BPA was present. The bad news? It is. It appears that BPA leeches from packaging like plastic wrap into the food, as many critics have long insisted.
The goodish news, and the news the chemical lobby has latched on to, is that exposure to BPA from these food sources is modest, well below the 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight of daily exposure that the EPA deems safe. Although researchers did observe that the newly proposed European standard of 10 mcg/kg could be exceeded through eating many of the contaminated foods as staple foods.
Of course, what makes BPA so pernicious is that there is not one single way we are exposed to it. It’s still used in a wide range of products, including cash register receipts. In fact, a new study shows that BPA is readily absorbed through the skin — and since most of us handle register receipts on a daily basis — it’s starting to look like our skin, rather than our mouths, could be the prime entry point for BPA.
And yet, once again, government inaction may not be the final word. Nestlé, Heinz, General Mills, Campbell Soups, and even — reluctantly — Coca-Cola are all actively exploring alternative coatings for their cans. Nestlé has announced its intention to phase out BPA in its U.S. product lines in three years, while General Mills has already stopped using BPA in this year’s crop of its Muir Glen organic canned tomato products.
Now if we could just get the same promise from thermal paper producers, we might be getting somewhere. (I know BPA-free paper exists. My food co-op already uses it!)
The great BPA debacle is one of those examples of consumer wallets proving more powerful than government regulators’ rule-making pens. It’s a shame that the regulatory refuseniks in the newly (though perhaps temporarily) ascendant Republican Party — not to mention in our industry-captive federal agencies — continue to hold sway over these issues. But it seems that, in this case at least, we’re finally seeing some slow and steady actions against this highest-profile of endocrine disruptors.
Now if we could only make some progress on all the other endocrine disruptors we are exposed to on a daily basis, we might finally be able to give our hormones a break.