BPA: Yay or Nay? New Study Casts Doubt on Chemical's Danger

A new study suggests the chemical isn't as nasty as previously believed, but here's why you should keep avoiding it.

September 19, 2011

Time to buy canned food again? Not quite, say experts who remain convinced of BPA's risks.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Bisphenol A (BPA), better known as the plastics chemical that's found in baby and water bottles and nearly all canned foods, has caused a lot of panic over the years. As more studies linked the hormone-disrupting chemical to health problems ranging from altered brain function, sinking sperm counts, and certain cancers to developmental problems in babies, health-conscious cooks switched from canned veggies to fresh or frozen, and athletes traded in plastic water bottles for stainless steel versions. Companies responded to consumer demand and started researching BPA-free alternatives or avoiding plastic entirely and switching to glass packaging. But now a new government study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences suggests that BPA might not be the bad actor it's presumed to be.

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To figure out bioactive levels of BPA in the body—in other words, the form of BPA that could pose a risk if present in high enough levels—researchers fed study participants meals of canned food and then tested their blood and urine over a 24-hour period. The bioactive form of BPA was so low it was undetectable in 83 percent of the people tested.

So is it safe to say we should all start eating out of BPA-lined metals cans and plastic water bottles again? Not so fast. Environmental health experts say there are major flaws in this study, noting that dozens of previous studies find reasons for concern when it comes to BPA risks.

For starters, explains Laura Vandenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow of biology at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, the study researchers never tested BPA levels in the food given to the participants, despite calling those meals high BPA exposure sources (numerous studies have found that the levels of BPA in canned foods can vary depending on the type of food). Beyond that, the scientists didn't indicate the brand of canned food used. Previous research has shown that some manufacturers' cans have much higher levels of BPA than others', even when they contain the same food. "Green beans from manufacturer X could have a lot of BPA, while green beans from manufacturer Y could have very little."

Vandenberg also takes issue with what researchers were feeding study participants. A significant portion of the meals was made up of canned fruit, which tends to absorb much less BPA from cans because fruit cans aren't entirely coated with BPA, unlike cans used for vegetables and meat, Vandenberg explains. "They sort of ignored that as a basis when they chose what to feed people," she adds.

Other BPA Exposure Sources Ignored

The participants in this study were in a controlled setting, not the same as the real world, where BPA has been detected in the air, water, and even sand. "Their results suggest, in fact, that food is not a major source of human exposures, or at least not the foods they provided," says Vandenberg. "This argues once again that the 'other' sources of BPA, including cash register receipts, other papers, epoxy resins in pipes, air, dust, etcetera, are likely to be significant."

Additionally, Vandenberg says scientists still are not certain that all of the effects of the active form of BPA, including obesity, altered behaviors, infertility, and altered brain development, are due to BPA's estrogenic properties. "To call BPA metabolites harmless is to speak before the data is available," she says. "Those studies simply haven't been done."

The bottom line? The evidence is still strongly stacked against BPA. Keep it out of your system, here's how:

• Avoid canned food.

• Decline unnecessary receipts.

• Steer clear of No. 7 or unlabeled plastics—some contain BPA. In fact, a study published earlier this year found that all plastics, even those labeled "BPA free" leached chemicals that exhibited even greater estrogenic activity than BPA.

Read More: Does This Chemical Make Me Look Fat? 'Obesogens' Lurk All Around Us