We’ve known for a long time that bisphenol-A (BPA) is bad for us. Study after study shows the ill-effects of this widely-used industrial chemical on our bodies–and in particular, on developing babies’ bodies. The list is pretty sobering: BPA’s been linked to breast cancer in women, brain damage in children, obesity, heart disease, diabetes…

Two new studies add to the litany:

Baby FaceOne study suggests that BPA, may cause sexual dysfunction in men. Another study, reported in Science News, links BPA exposures in early pregnancy to more aggressive behavior in 2-year old girls and more anxious and withdrawn 2-year old boys.

How do we get exposed to BPA? It’s most often been associated with plastics. BPA is an endocrine disrupter that can mimic human hormones and it’s found in a variety of plastic products including baby bottles, plastic containers, dental sealants and the lining of cans used for food and beverages. All that is alarming enough (baby bottles, for God’s sake!!) An unlikely new culprit for BPA exposure may be cash register and credit card receipts!

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We gave up our Nalgene bottles, we stocked up on BPA-free baby bottles, we avoid canned foods. But how do we avoid cash register receipts!?

First, more about the new studies:

A five-year study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and funded by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, followed 634 factory workers in China and found that those working in BPA manufacturing facilities had four times the risk of erectile dysfunction and seven times the risk of ejaculation difficulty as those in a control group where no BPA was present.Previous studies have found that BPA interferes with male sexual function in mice and rats, but this was the first study to look specifically at the effect on humans.

The other new study, of 249 women and their babies, beginning early in their pregnancies, has linked prenatal exposure to BPA with subtle (but scary), gender-specific alterations in behavior among 2-year-olds. “Girls whose mothers had encountered the most BPA early in pregnancy tended to become somewhat more aggressive than normal. Boys became more anxious and withdrawn.” There’s no way to know whether these behaviors will persist, but test rodents’ BPA-caused aggression and hyperactivity does, leaving researchers to believe the effects might be lasting.

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More than 99 percent of the women tested positive for BPA. The higher the BPA levels during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy, the more likely her child was to show atypical behavior later. (After 16 weeks, the link went away).

The amount of BPA used in the United States is equivalent to six pounds per person per year. Infants fed with liquid formula are among the most exposed, and those fed formula from polycarbonate bottles can consume up to 13 micrograms of bisphenol-A per kg of body weight per day. (Federal guidelines currently put the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. But that level is based on experiments done in the 1980s rather than hundreds of more recent animal and laboratory studies indicating serious health risks could result from much lower doses of BPA.)

The Consumer Reports magazine published a analysis of BPA content in some canned foods and beverages, where in specific cases the content of a single can of food could exceed the current FDA Cumulative Exposure Daily Intake. (The canned organic foods we tested did not always have lower BPA levels than nonorganic brands of similar foods analyzed. We even found the chemical in some products in cans that were labeled “BPA-free.”)

Consumer groups recommend that people wishing to lower their exposure to bisphenol A avoid canned food and polycarbonate plastic containers. The National Toxicology Panel recommends avoiding microwaving food in plastic containers, putting plastics in the dishwasher, or using harsh detergents, to avoid leaching.

Cash Register Reciept

But what about paper products like receipts? They’re everywhere!

Apparently, BPA isn’t found in every receipt paper on the market, but the ones that have it look exactly the same as those that don’t. And the amount receipts carry isn’t trivial.

According to chemist John C. Warner who co-founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, an organization that works with industry to develop safer products and production processes, “When people talk about polycarbonate bottles, they talk about nanogram quantities of BPA [leaching out]. The average cash register receipt that’s out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA.” By free, he means that it’s not bound into a polymer, like the BPA in plastics, so it’s just the individual molecules “loose and ready for uptake.”

Warner hasn’t published his findings or run a full-fledged study. His angle is to work from the inside, finding viable industry substitutions for toxics. But he is pretty sure that BPA from receipts can be easily transferred from our hands to our food and into our mouths. It’s likely that we can also absorb it through our skin.

So, what do we do? There are efforts underway to implement bans on BPA. Some jurisdictions have successfully done so—including Connecticut, Minnesota, and several cities and counties around the country. Opposition from chemical companies and Wal-Mart blocked the Safe Baby Bottle Act of 2009 from becoming law this year in Washington State—a reasonable law that would have prevented use of BPA in baby bottles–the last place they belong. Canada banned BPA in all baby bottles in 2008. An attempt at federal legislation to eliminate BPA in the United States, the Ban Poisonous Additives Act, will likely come up for consideration in 2010. It’s hard to see why we wouldn’t fight for these measures and just how policy makers can get away with further delay.

At the very least, I’d like to know where BPA lurks. Why can’t we demand proper labeling of any and all products that contain BPA at their point of sale—or in the case of receipts, at the cash register?

At least pregnant women like me would know to wash their hands after picking up a BPA-laced receipt—instead of reusing it for my grocery list like I usually do or filling my wallet with a pile of old ones an
d carrying them around for weeks. And we’d all know to keep such paper out of hands of kids.

It’s my usual refrain, but it might take an army of fed up parents to push any kind of serious BPA legislation through. Yet again, it’s our bodies and our kids’ long-term mental and physical health vs. harmful industry practices. I’m new to the mom thing, but I’d think that any reasonable person would agree that the decisions we make as a community should put our bodies and our kids first.

Images courtesy: BadrNaseem and functoruser, Flickr.com.

This post originally appeared at Sightline’s Daily Score blog.