Finally! FDA Considers BPA Plastic in Your Food a Health Risk

The FDA announces concern about the chemical BPA's health effects, but you're better off avoiding it now than waiting for regulatory action.

January 20, 2010

Can opener: A chemical that lines most food cans raises safety concerns, says the FDA.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Government policy makers and scientists finally seem to agree on something. In a reversal of its previous position, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally expressed some concern over the health impacts of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in rigid plastic dishes, water bottles, and baby bottles, as well as in the epoxy linings of nearly all canned foods and drinks. The announcement places the agency's position in line with those of government scientists at the National Toxicology Program who sounded the alarm over BPA plastic two years ago. BPA has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including various forms of cancer, inflammation, diabetes, liver problems, and aggressive behavior in children. Most recently, a study published in the online journal PLoS One confirmed findings from prior research that linked the chemical to an increased risk of heart disease.

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THE DETAILS: The FDA announced that it was changing its stance on BPA, noting that there was "some concern about the safety of BPA" for adults and children, based on studies showing that the chemical can have subtle effects on people even at low exposure levels. This is a complete, 180-degree turn from the FDA's previous position. In 2008, the agency published a report stating that the chemical was safe for all uses, relying on only two industry-funded studies finding that BPA had no impacts on human health, and ignoring the independent studies showing adverse affects at both low and high levels.

The agency didn't advocate an outright ban on the substance. However, in a press release on its website, FDA announced that it would support industry actions to stop producing BPA-containing baby bottles and infant feeding cups for the U.S. market, facilitate the development of alternatives to BPA for the linings of infant formula cans, and support efforts to replace BPA or minimize BPA levels in other food can linings. The Department of Health and Human Services, under which the FDA operates, also announced the formation of an Interagency Task Force on Children's Environmental Health and the commitment of $30 million in research to better understand BPA's affects on children and the public at large. Results of those research projects are expected in 18 to 24 months.

One catch to this sudden about-face: While the FDA can announce that BPA is unsafe, it doesn't have the authority to regulate it. That's because BPA falls under the category of "indirect food additives" that have been deemed "generally recognized as safe" and therefore aren't subject to FDA approval or regulation. In order to change that, the FDA would have to undergo a change in a rule-making process that was established 40 years ago, and that could take a while.

WHAT IT MEANS: Many scientists and public-health advocates are pleased with the change in tone, although some don't feel the language is strict enough. Many of the studies on BPA and its effects on children have revealed that exposures in the womb do the most damage. "If you want to protect children from the real impact of BPA, we have to prevent exposures during pregnancy," Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and author of a study on BPA's effects on childhood aggression, told Rodale.com in a recent interview. He added that focusing efforts on reducing BPA in plastic baby bottles and formula cans could be too late to protect children.

Although the FDA has no authority to regulate the chemical, a bill in Congress, introduced by Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Charles Schumer (D-NY), would ban all uses of BPA in any food or beverage container. However, it was introduced in March of last year and has stalled in committee.

There are other, more immediate ways to protect all your family members from BPA exposure:

• Avoid cans. In 1997, Japanese manufacturers voluntarily stopped using BPA in food cans and other products, and scientific studies conducted a few years later showed that levels of BPA in Japanese citizens had dropped more than 50 percent. (Eden Foods is the only U.S. company that uses BPA-free linings in its organic canned beans.) In general, rather than use canned vegetables or meats, buy fresh or frozen alternatives. Purchase dried beans, and look for soup in boxes, which contain no BPA. Better still, make your own BPA-free soup.

• Use glass. The FDA is recommending that people opt for "microwave-safe" plastics. However, that label simply means that plastic won't melt in the microwave, not that its chemicals won't migrate into your food. Heat up and store food in glass containers, and if you want lightweight containers to carry food around in, use stainless steel. The online retailer ReusableBags.com has a wide variety of both. If you can't eliminate all your plastic food and beverage containers at once, definitely get rid of any with a #7 designation, or that don't have a number. And never use any kind of plastic container to hold hot food or beverages.

• Vote. Considering that this is an election year, consumers have a good deal of power to influence public policy. Tell your congressmen to vote for the "Ban Poisonous Additives Act of 2009" and get it out of committee—lest you oust them from office.