Leah Gernetzke
The high cost of plastic convenience

Published in The Lakeland Times

Opening a can for dinner may have saved Americans time and money over the years, but according to recent research, we’re now paying for that convenience with our health.

That’s because of a ubiquitous chemical called Bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking synthetic hormone found in polycarbonate plastics that has been found to disrupt the endocrine system.

While the chemical protects consumers from metal contamination, it introduces a host of other problems, including reproductive abnormalities, a heightened risk of breast and prostrate cancers, diabetes, and obesity.

First marketed in the 1940s, by the 1960s BPA was used in almost all can linings. Now more than 7 billion pounds are produced annually for use not only in the inner lining of cans, but also water bottles, baby bottles, sippy cups, consumer electronics, dental sealants, medical equipment, water pipes, receipts, and toys – Which explains why more than 90 percent of U.S. adults and children have measurable amounts of BPA in their bodies, according to the Endocrine Society.

While federal guidelines place the daily maximum limit of safe exposure to the chemical at 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight, one average serving of canned vegetable soup has approximately double that amount, according to a study by Consumer Reports.

These federal guidelines are based on studies conducted in the 1980s, but current studies show that adverse effects can actually occur at much lower levels of exposure, meaning consumption should ideally be limited to only 0.0024 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.

Robert Moore, a senior scientist at the UW-Madison school of pharmacy, pointed out that almost any chemical is detrimental when consumed in large quantities. However, he added that the uproar over BPA is not unfounded.

“It’s difficult to prove anything because there are so many variables,” he said. “But based on studies from reputable labs with reputable standards, there is something real here I believe.”

Who does BPA affect?

Economic status has a direct correlation to BPA-related health concerns. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that people with lower incomes had larger amounts of BPA in their systems, largely because canned goods are one of the least expensive food items.

The chemical is also particularly disruptive to children, who have a higher risk of exposure because of the high prevalence of the chemical in commercial products such as baby bottles and sippy cups. Children’s endocrine systems are also much more susceptible to the chemical overall, as they are still developing.

Gail Prins, a professor of physiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a BPA expert, has studied the consequences of early exposure to the chemical extensively.

Prins said BPA essentially re-programs inherited genes, but doesn’t impact development until puberty, when it then has the ability to modify gender traits and remove protective molecules that would ordinarily hinder diseases.

“Early exposure ‘remembers’ later,” she said. “Rats exposed to BPA right after they’re born are much more susceptible to neoplasia [abnormal cell growth] when they’re adults than if they hadn’t seen the chemical.”

The FDA

Though hundreds of studies have shown the detrimental health effects of BPA, the Food and Drug Administration still hasn’t banned the chemical.

In fact, the administration issued statements in 2008 assuring the public that BPA is safe for consumption. These claims were based on two studies funded by the American Plastics Council and The American Chemistry Council, both of which are Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) certified.

The FDA did not review hundreds of academic, peer-reviewed studies on BPA, as academic and independent labs have different standardization processes than GLP. This decision caused an uproar in the scientific community.

“That was a profoundly unscientific judgment that deserves criticism,” Moore said. “It’s kind of like ignoring the 9/11 attacks because they didn’t come from a conventional army.”

But why did these studies find BPA to be safe for consumption, while others pointed undeniably to a hazardous truth?

Prins said that a specific type of rats have a much lower sensitivity to estrogen, and these could have been used in the experiments to hinder results.

“The FDA had blinders on,” she said. “There was a human cry even within the FDA.”

In late 2008, a special scientific advisory panel within the FDA did indeed report that the administration’s safety standards were inadequate and required re-evaluation. The following year, a congressional subcommittee also stated that the studies should be re-evaluated due to their heavy reliance on the American Plastics Council study.

As a result of the backlash, the FDA is currently conducting further research. A federal proposal that would ban BPA from all food products has also been introduced to the U.S. Congress.

State action

In the meantime, state governments are introducing legislation banning the chemical.

On Nov. 10, 2009, a state senate committee held a public hearing on the BPA Free Kids Act, which would ban use of the chemical in sippy cups and baby bottles in Wisconsin.

Both Prins and Moore testified to the detrimental health effects of BPA at the hearing, along with Wisconsin Sen. Julie Lassa and State Rep. Kelda Helen Roys.

Grassroots action

Non-profit organizations such as the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) are helping to push the issue through the legislative process, as well as educating consumers.

“You can’t look at a product and know it has a chemical toxin,” WISPIRG director Bruce Speight said. “Parents aren’t chemists and they don’t know if they’re buying these products. Toxic chemicals have no place in children’s products.”

He said the bill would provide transparency for consumers by requiring companies to label cans and plastics as BPA-free.

Eleven other states are currently in the process of developing bans like Wisconsin’s. Similar legislation has already been passed in Connecticut, Chicago, Suffolk County, New York, and most recently, Minnesota.

“It was the right thing to do in Minnesota and it’s the right thing to do in Wisconsin,” Speight said. “There are over 30 co-sponsors on the bill, and a lot of support in the Capitol.”

He said the bill would go into effect 90 days after publication. Currently, it is still in the discussion phase and has not yet been passed.

“We’ve taken the critical first step,” he said. “The bill is now moving.”

Some corporations aren’t waiting for the bill’s crawl toward implementation, however. Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Playtex have all pledged to not sell children’s products with BPA, and Vital Choice and Eden Foods have stopped using the chemical in cans altogether.

“Why risk it?” Moore said. “It should be a no-brainer. There are so many other plastics.”