New Research Finds BPA in Plastic, Sand, Water—and in All of Us

Studies used to tout the chemical's safety are flawed, researcher says; levels found in pregnant women and unborn children are "alarming."

March 31, 2010

If your food is in plastic, BPA is in you.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—New research analyzing dozens of studies looking at levels of the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, in humans has found that the two oft-cited studies that many governments rely on for safety data are flawed and inadequate for use in regulating the controversial chemical for human safety.


That's problematic because each year 8 billion tons of the chemical—which acts like estrogen in our bodies, and is linked to developmental and neurological problems in children and heart disease and breast and prostate cancers in adults—are manufactured around the world. About 100 million tons are released into the atmosphere, and it is now showing up in everything from surface and drinking water to beach sand and saltwater. Tests have even found the chemical present in some BPA-free baby bottles and plastics that aren't supposed to contain BPA, and in food samples taken from BPA-free cans.

THE DETAILS: Looking at the 80 published human biomonitoring studies that measured BPA levels in human urine, blood, tissues, and other fluids, researchers found high percentages of the chemical in virtually everyone tested. "The punch line of this article is that when looking at all of these small studies together, making one giant study out of them, the majority of individuals examined—regardless of age, sex, or where they live—are exposed to levels of BPA that affect animals and cells in lab tests," explains Laura N. Vandenberg, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "And the levels in pregnant women and fetuses are what we would consider alarming."

In addition to the 80 studies showing damaging levels in humans, the researchers also found that the two toxicokinetic studies (in which people took BPA in pill form, and then researchers concluded it readily passed through the body, causing little harm) were flawed and cannot be reliable references for risk assessment. (These two studies are generally used to defend BPA's safety.)

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was jumping into the fray to investigate BPA's effect on wildlife in the environment. An agency spokeswoman said the agency launched the investigation because of the high amount of BPA produced, the large amounts of environmental releases, its presence in human biomonitoring, and its reproductive and developmental toxicity. EPA is also coordinating with other federal agencies, including the Food & Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to look at potential human health concerns, a process that's likely to take about two years.

"If specific human health and environmental concerns are determined to be present, EPA will propose appropriate action based on that information," according to an EPA spokesperson. "We can't speculate in advance about what that action might be, although actions possible under TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) include controls on chemical manufacturing, processing, use, and disposal, as well as labeling requirements."

Read on to find out some of the surprising products BPA is used in.

WHAT IT MEANS: While the different government agencies amp up BPA research, we're all still being exposed. While about 5 percent of BPA is used in products that directly contact food, such as certain plastic bottles and cans, the rest is used in industrial and commercial sectors, and in many consumer products. While we aren't directly eating those types of BPA-containing products, research has found that the chemical is winding up in our air, household dust, and water, where we can inhale, drink, or possibly even absorb the chemical through our skin. While the food exposure data is clearly a cause for concern, science involving other exposure routes will likely gain more attention in the coming year. (For instance, carbonless copy receipts are chockfull of BPA—how does that affect cash register attendants in contact with them all day long, every day?)

"We do know a lot of things that BPA's being used in, like bike helmets, car seats, CDs, and eye glass lenses," says Vandenberg. "In general, we assume we're not being exposed to BPA from those things. I'm not saying we are or we aren't. The truth is, we don't know yet."

What scientists do know is that BPA can be found in river water, sewage wastewater, drinking water, air, and dust. "The question is, 'if it's found in the water you bathe in, are you absorbing it?' We don't know yet," says Vandenberg. Unfortunately, while avoiding the exposure sources that are under your control—not using plastic food or drink containers, for example—is a prudent step to take, it's looking more and more like a large-scale solution will be required. "It's impossible to shop your way out of this problem," Vandenberg adds. The most important action to take, she says, is to encourage legislation and speak to elected officials about changing regulations to keep harmful chemicals out of so many products. This is already being done in some parts of the country, where states and cities have banned BPA's use in baby bottles.

If it's everywhere, how can I protect myself from BPA?

• Focus on your food. Simply swearing off metal food and beverage cans and unlabeled and No. 7 polycarbonate plastics is likely to reduce your exposure to harmful BPA. In Japan, when BPA-lined food cans were outlawed, tests showed that the population's BPA levels dropped significantly. Similarly, keeping anything you eat or drink from contacting plastic is a logical safeguard, too. Never heat any type of plastic, whether it's cooking in it in the microwave, setting a water bottle out in the sun, or washing a plastic bowl in the dishwasher. The heat accelerates the breakdown of the plastic, making the chemicals more likely to leach into your food. Also be wary of food that comes in cardboard that can contain BPA. Take your Chinese food out of its box to serve and store it, and don't cook food in its packaging even if the instructions tell you to do so.

• Buy less plastic. We really don't know yet if the BPA in things like computer casings, car dashboards, and other things we contact every day makes its way into our bodies. But it seems likely that anything that's plastic and ends up in a landfill could break down and contaminate ground water. Not purchasing plastic items you don't need may help keep BPA out of your house dust and off your skin, as well as help eliminate it from our waterways.

• Wash your hands. The swine-flu epidemic reminded us how the simple combo of soap and hot water can wipe out harmful germs. Using them can also eliminate any BPA that you may have picked up during the course of your day. So here's a reason to keep up with multiple daily hand washing, especially before meals, even when it's not cold and flu season.

• Reconsider receipts. The health impact of the high levels of BPA found on carbonless paper receipts is also unknown, but if you can avoid them, you may be doing yourself a favor. If you have to handle a large volume of them, consider wearing gloves and/or washing your hands frequently.