In 2008, the possible health risks of Bisphenol A (BPA) -- a common chemical in plastic -- made headlines. Parents were alarmed, pediatricians flooded with questions, and stores quickly sold-out of BPA-free bottles and sippy cups.
Where do things stand now? Have plastic manufacturers changed their practices? How careful does a parent need to be when it comes to plastics and BPA? Here's the latest information we have about possible BPA risks.
BPA is a chemical that has been used to harden plastics for more than 40 years. It's everywhere. It's in medical devices, compact discs, dental sealants, water bottles, the lining of canned foods and drinks, and many other products.
More than 90% of us have BPA in our bodies right now. We get most of it by eating foods that have been in containers made with BPA. It's also possible to pick up BPA through air, dust, and water.
BPA was common in baby bottles, sippy cups, baby formula cans, and other products for babies and young children. Controversy changed that. Now, the six major companies that make baby bottles and cups for infants have stopped using BPA in the products they sell in the U.S. Many manufacturers of infant formula have stopped using BPA in their cans, as well.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, toys generally don't contain BPA. While the hard outer shields of some pacifiers do have BPA, the nipple that the baby sucks on does not.
What does BPA do to us? We still don't really know, since we don't have definitive studies of its effects in people yet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration used to say that BPA was safe. But in 2010 the agency altered its position. The FDA maintains that studies using standardized toxicity tests have shown BPA to be safe at the current low levels of human exposure. But based on other evidence -- largely from animal studies -- the FDA expressed "some concern" about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, infants, and young children.
How could BPA affect the body? Here are some areas of concern.
- Hormone levels. Some experts believe that BPA could theoretically act like a hormone in the body, disrupting normal hormone levels and development in fetuses, babies, and children. Animal studies have had mixed results.
- Brain and behavior problems. After a review of the evidence, the National Toxicology Program at the FDA expressed concern about BPA’s possible effects on the brain and behavior of infants and young children.
- Cancer. Some animal studies have shown a possible link between BPA exposure and a later increased risk of cancer.
- Heart problems. Two studies have found that adults with the highest levels of BPA in their bodies seem to have a higher incidence of heart problems. However, the higher incidence could be unrelated to BPA.
- Other conditions. Some experts have looked into a connection between BPA exposure and many conditions -- obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and others. The evidence isn't strong enough to show a link.
- Increased risk to children. Some studies suggest that possible effects from BPA could be most pronounced in infants and young children. Their bodies are still developing and they are less efficient at eliminating substances from their systems.
Although this list of possible BPA risks is frightening, keep in mind that nothing has been established. The concern about BPA risks stems primarily from studies in animals.
A few studies in people have found a correlation between BPA and a higher incidence of certain health problems, but no direct evidence that BPA caused the problem. Other studies contradict some of these results. Some experts doubt that BPA poses a health risk at the doses most people are exposed to.
BPA: Governmental Action
The federal government is now funding new research into BPA risks. We don't know the results of these studies yet. Recommendations about BPA could change in the next few years.
For now, there are no restrictions on the use of BPA in products. The Food and Drug Administration does recommend taking "reasonable steps" to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply. The FDA has also expressed support for manufacturers who have stopped using BPA in products for babies and for companies working to develop alternatives to the BPA in canned foods.
A number of states have taken action. Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont have laws restricting or banning the sale of certain products containing BPA, like bottles and sippy cups. So have cities like Chicago and Albany, as well as a few counties in New York. Similar laws are likely to pass in New York and California, and state legislatures are considering restrictions in many other states.
BPA Risks: What Can Parents Do?
Although the evidence is not certain, the FDA does recommend taking precautions against BPA exposure.
Trying to eliminate BPA from your child's life is probably impossible. But limiting your child's exposure -- and your own -- is possible. It doesn't even have to be hard. Here are some tips on how to do it.
- Find products that are BPA-free. It isn't as hard as it once was. Many brands of bottles, sippy cups, and other tableware prominently advertise that they are BPA-free.
- Look for infant formula that is BPA-free. Many brands no longer contain BPA in the can. If a brand does have BPA in the lining, some experts recommend powdered formula over liquid. Liquid is more likely to absorb BPA from the lining.
- Choose non-plastic containers for food. Containers made of glass, porcelain, or stainless steel do not contain BPA.
- Do not heat plastic that could contain BPA. Never use plastic in the microwave, since heat can cause BPA to leach out. For the same reason, never pour boiling water into a plastic bottle when making formula. Hand-wash plastic bottles, cups, and plates.
- Throw out any plastic products -- like bottles or sippy cups -- that are chipped or cracked. They can harbor germs. If they also have BPA, it's more likely to leach into food.
- Use fewer canned foods and more fresh or frozen. Many canned foods still contain BPA in their linings.
- Avoid plastics with a 3 or a 7 recycle code on the bottom. These plastics might contain BPA. Other types of numbered plastic are much less likely to have BPA in them.