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Bisphenol A (BPA): Answers to Questions

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About the Plastics Chemical Bisphenol A
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

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.

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.

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