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Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is a harmful chemical lurking in many products we use everyday, including plastics, canned food, and even cash register receipts. Learn what it is, how it can harm your health, and how to lower your family's exposure to BPA.
Shelby Poole, a young mom and the owner of Jackson's Restaurant in Commack, NY, recently made a simple business decision. Poole had been reading a lot about bisphenol A. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration passed a ban on the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups containing BPA, but Poole learned that it’s still used in certain types of sales receipts. Deciding she didn’t want her workers or customers exposed to the chemical, Poole changed the type of paper in her restaurant’s cash register, committing to the slightly higher price (about 2 cents per roll) in an effort to keep BPA out of her restaurant.
Poole’s decision doesn’t seem radical, but it sparked something much larger. When Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern heard about it, he knew the county had to act. Suffolk County was the first to ban the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups containing BPA, and last fall it passed the Safer Sales Slips Act, which bans the chemical in sales receipts.
BPA is a chemical that looks and acts like the hormone estrogen. It is used to make hard, clear plastics (known as polycarbonates) found in a variety of consumer products, and it can also be found in the linings of most canned products, including the 131 billion food and beverage cans made in the U.S. each year. Since the 1960s, BPA has been used to make many everyday plastic products, including some baby bottles, water and sports bottles, food containers, plastic wrap, toys, and cash register receipts.
While BPA has been banned from baby bottles in both the U.S. and Europe, Suffolk County is the first to ban the chemical in sales receipts (it will begin fining business in 2014). But Stern says he hopes that other local governments and, eventually, the federal government will follow his county’s lead.
“It’s a chemical that has been shown over and over again to be the cause of myriad health problems,” says Stern, who represents Suffolk’s 16th district. Because it looks and acts like estrogen, BPA confuses your body into thinking it is estrogen, and it can disrupt the balance of hormones in your system. Recent research has shown that exposure to BPA carries many health risks: For adults, BPA is linked to diabetes, obesity, heart problems, several types of cancer, and infertility. For young children, effects include a decrease in the child’s ability to concentrate, learn, and control emotions. Fetuses and babies are at the greatest risk from exposure to BPA because they are still growing and developing, and hormones play a large role in those processes. Also, children have smaller bodies, which means even a small amount of a chemical will have a larger effect on them than it will on a grown body.
“The March of Dimes urges pregnant women to avoid plastics with numbers 3, 6, and 7, which are made with phthalates, polystyrene foam, and BPA,” says Edward McCabe, M.D., medical director for the March of Dimes, who lives in Harrison, NY. “The important thing for moms to know is you can avoid those specific plastics, but it’s so ubiquitous that over 90 percent of children and mothers have measurable BPA levels.”
As a parent to two children ages 10 and 13, Stern says the new bill is important to him on a personal level, to protect his children and the children in his community. “The Safer Sales Slips Act is particularly important to protecting children because the scientific studies will show that retail workers who handle these slips on a regular basis have 30 percent more BPA in their systems than non-retail workers. That’s a tremendous percentage—and if you look at who retail workers are, it’s so many young mothers.”
Surveys by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found BPA in the bodies of nearly every person older than 6, and in 2009, the Environmental Working Group detected BPA in nine out of 10 cord blood samples. Most recently, in a study released earlier this year by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, BPA was connected to breathing problems in children.
BPA first became a concern approximately five years ago, when The National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (part of the National Institutes of Health) completed a review of BPA and expressed “some concern” for the chemical’s effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children, though it added that more research needed to be done to determine other possible effects. The FDA has acknowledged this conclusion, but “is pursuing additional studies to address the uncertainties in the findings,” according to its website.
As for those uncertainties: “A lot of that has to do with the nature of the studies,” Dr. McCabe explains. “A lot are epidemiologic, which means they show associations but can’t identify causation.” He adds: “I think until there is very strong evidence, it’s going to be difficult to regulate. And that’s why folks need to be educated about what they’re exposing themselves and their kids to.”
Stern agrees that raising awareness is key, and believes every individual can make a difference. “There’s a Shelby Poole in every community,” he says. “If you do something locally to raise awareness, your impact could be global.”
Plastics and other products containing BPA are everywhere in our lives, which means they’re just about impossible to avoid altogether. But it is possible to lower our exposure. “On a daily basis, we can still make better choices [to avoid BPA] without becoming crazy or developing a phobia,” says Sylvie Beljanski, vice president of the Manhattan-based Beljanski Foundation. “People can take a few simple steps that will help them reduce their exposure and the exposure of their children."
• Buy less canned food, as virtually every canned product (even those labeled organic) uses BPA in its lining (a few small companies sell cans lined with BPA alternatives, and those are labeled as BPA-free). Switch to frozen or fresh vegetables or buy food packed in glass jars or waxed cardboard cartons. (Canned beverages appear to contain less of the chemical than canned foods, which are often processed at high temperatures.) Pregnant women especially should limit their intake of canned foods.
• Buy baby formula in BPA-free plastic, glass, or other non-metal containers. When possible, choose powdered formula because the packaging contains less BPA and the powder is diluted with fresh water.
• Use glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers instead of plastic containers, especially for hot foods and liquids. Learn how to read plastic labels to determine which plastics contain BPA.
• Do not microwave food in any plastic containers. The high heat causes chemicals to leach out of the plastic and into your food.
• Do not put any plastic containers in the dishwasher.
• Avoid taking receipts at ATMs, gas stations, and other retail stores. Choose paperless receipts whenever possible.
• Place receipts in envelopes or a separate change purse to avoid having them in contact with your other belongings, such as your cash.
• Keep receipts away from children.
• Wash hands with soap and water after touching receipts (especially before preparing or eating food).
• Try not to hold receipts with wet hands or after using lotion or hand sanitizer (these products can let BPA get into the skin more easily).
• Do not recycle receipts, as BPA can contaminate other recycled paper.
Earlier this year, Prevention.com released a list of the 100 “cleanest” packaged foods. Among the criteria for these foods: low sugar, low sodium, no GMO ingredients, and BPA-free (oh yeah, and they had to be delicious, too!). Browse the list at nymetroparents.com/prevention-bpa.
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Kaitlin Ahern has a degree in magazine journalism from Syracuse University. See More.
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