Bisphenol A (BPA): Answers to Questions

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About the Plastics Chemical Bisphenol A

From the WebMD Archives

What is bisphenol A and what products is it in?

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical compound used to make polycarbonate plastics, epoxy resins, and other materials.

Virtually everyone in the U.S. comes across BPA every day. Among other things, BPA is used to make:

  • shatterproof polycarbonate hard plastic bottles and containers
  • eyeglass lenses
  • CD and DVD cases
  • linings for canned foods and beverages

Not all plastic products contain BPA. You may want to check the recycle codes within the "chasing arrows" on the product.

"In general, plastics that are marked with recycle codes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are very unlikely to contain BPA," the FDA's web site states. "Some, but not all, plastics that are marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA."

BPA is also used to coat thermal paper, so it is found on cash register receipts. A March 2011 study by the Washington Toxics Coalition and the advocacy group Safer Chemicals found “very large” quantities of BPA on about half of receipts collected from stores in 10 states and Washington, D.C. Because BPA on receipts isn’t bound to the product, it easily sloughs off onto the skin when the receipts are handled.

The study also found lower amounts of BPA in 21 of 22 dollars tested. Dollar bills aren't made with BPA; it's theorized that the BPA may have gotten onto dollar bills as a result of coming into contact with cash register receipts and other sources of BPA.

Is exposure to bisphenol A safe for humans?

Derived from petroleum, BPA is known to mimic the hormone estrogen. There is a growing body of research indicating that BPA may pose health hazards to humans in several ways.

The chemical is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it can interfere with the body’s endocrine system and potentially cause damaging developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans and other mammals.

Research has linked BPA to breast and prostate cancer in animals and obesity, thyroid problems, reproductive abnormalities, and neurologic disorders in humans.

In January 2010, a study published in the online journal PLoS One found that people with the highest levels of BPA in their body had the highest risk of heart disease. Laboratory studies have also suggested that BPA may interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.

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However, much of the research on BPA has been done on lab animals or has come from observational studies in people, which don't prove cause and effect. BPA has not been proven to be responsible for any disease or condition.

The National Toxicology Program reports that it has “some concern” for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures to bisphenol A.

Companies that use BPA in their products, as well as industry organizations, including the American Chemical Society, insist that BPA is safe. The North American Metal Packaging Alliance, a trade organization representing canned food and beverage makers, credits BPA linings for the elimination of contamination and foodborne illness from canned goods.

Further research is ongoing. In total, the National Institutes of Health has about $30 million in funded research investigating BPA, which may help answer some of the ongoing questions about its safety.

What does the FDA say?

In 2008, the FDA issued a draft report stating that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure.

But in 2010, the agency changed its position as further evidence accumulated. The FDA's web site states that it “shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants,and children. FDA also recognizes substantial uncertainties with respect to the overall interpretation of these studies and their potential implications for human health effects of BPA exposure.”

On March 30, 2012, the FDA denied a petition filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that asked the FDA to ban BPA in food packaging. In its response letter to the NRDC, the FDA states that it "takes this concern seriously" and is "continuing to review scientific data concerning the safety of BPA," but there was not enough scientific evidence to support the ban.

How can I avoid bisphenol A?

You probably can’t -- not entirely. BPA is in so many types of consumer products and packaging that virtually everyone has some levels of BPA in his or her body.

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But if you are concerned, there are ways to reduce your exposure. Some tips from the Breast Cancer Fund and Frederick vom Saal, PhD, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri and one of the leading researchers into BPA:

  • Eat fresh, non-prepackaged food whenever possible. In a study published in March in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, families reduced their BPA levels by 60% to 75% after just five days of eating freshly prepared organic meals that avoided contact with packaging containing BPA.
  • Switch to stainless steel and glass food storage and beverage containers.
  • Microwave foods in ceramic or glass containers, rather than plastic.
  • Limit canned foods, especially those that are acidic, salty, or fatty. BPA is more likely to leach into those foods from the can lining. These particularly include: canned coconut milk, soups, meats, fruits, vegetables, juice, fish, beans, and meal-replacement drinks.
  • Don’t put hot or boiling liquids in containers made with BPA.
  • Discard scratched plastic bottles; scratches can lead to greater release of BPA. (Even if the bottle doesn’t contain BPA, scratches can harbor germs.)
  • Choose fresh fruits and vegetables when possible, and frozen if not.
  • Tell the store clerk that you don’t want your receipt. If you really need it, don’t crumple it into your pocket; hold loosely between your thumb and forefinger until you file it away.

The FDA's web site also has this information for parents who want to minimize their baby's exposure to BPA:

  • Follow health guidelines to breastfeed babies for at least 12 months whenever possible. If that's not an option, the FDA states that iron-fortified infant formula "is the safest and most nutritious option. The benefit of a stable source of good nutrition from infant formula outweighs the potential risk of BPA exposure."
  • Don't heat cans of infant formula on the stove or in boiling water. You can serve it at room temperature or run warm water over the outside of the baby's bottle.
  • Discard scratched baby bottles and infant feeding cups.
  • Don't put boiling water or very hot water, infant formula, or other liquids into bottles that contain BPA when preparing them for your child.
  • Only use containers marked "dishwasher safe" in the dishwasher and those labeled "microwave safe" in the microwave.
  • Discard all food containers with scratches, as they may harbor germs and may lead to greater release of BPA.

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Are there companies that use BPA-free packaging?

Yes. As of January 2009, the six major baby bottle and sippy cup manufacturers confirmed to the FDA that they had removed BPA from their products. These would include brands such as Avent, Doctor Brown’s Natural Flow, Evenflo, First Essentials, Gerber, Munchkin, Nuk, and Playtex, which together represent more than 90% of the U.S. market for these items.

Michigan-based Eden Foods says that it has used BPA-free cans for all but its highly acidic tomato products for more than a decade, and reports that the BPA in its tomato can lining has been found to be in the “nondetectable” range.

But testing done by Consumer Reports in 2009 found measurable levels of BPA even in products that claim to be BPA-free. They also found that while bypassing metal cans for alternative packaging like plastic containers or bags can lower BPA exposure, these alternative containers weren’t always better.

“Seeking Safer Packaging 2010,” a report compiled by the environmental advocacy group As You Sow along with the investment advisory firm Green Century Capital Management, gave A grades to three companies -- Hain Celestial, ConAgra, and H.J. Heinz -- for their efforts to eliminate BPA from packaging. General Mills got a B+, and Nestle rated a B.

Has bisphenol A been banned anywhere?

Yes. Several states have banned BPA in certain consumer products. Minnesota’s law bans the chemical in spill-proof cups and baby bottles, while Connecticut’s goes further, banning its use in baby food cans and jars as well, along with reusable beverage containers. In 2010, more states followed these first two, with Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin banning BPA from products made for young children, and Vermont and Washington state banning it in sports bottles and reusable food and beverage containers as well.

In October 2010, Canada declared BPA to be a chemical that is toxic both to the environment and human health, setting the stage for tighter national regulation.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 13, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

FDA letter, March 30, 2012.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: "Endocrine Disruptors" and "Since You Asked: Bisphenol A."

Kolbert, E. Yale Environment 360, Nov. 24, 2010.

Reuters.

Dotinga, R., Business Week, Jan. 13, 2010. Business Week

Lapensee, E. Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2009; vol 117: pp 175-80.

Miodovnik, A. Neurotoxicology. March 2011, vol 2: pp 261-267.

News release, Tufts University.

News release, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

FDA: " Update on Bisphenol A for Use in Food Contact Applications: January 2010."

Rudel, R. Environmental Health Perspectives, March 30, 2011, advance online edition.

Lite, J. Scientific American, Sept. 16, 2008. 

Breast Cancer Fund: "Protect Your Family."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Bisphenol A (BPA) Information for Parents."

Chicago Tribune.

Consumer Reports, Nov. 2, 2009.

USA Today.

Governing, March 2011.

© 2011 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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