Are Bisphenol A (BPA) Plastic Products Safe for Infants and Children?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used to make plastics. It is widely used in sports equipment, water bottles, medical devices, and as a coating in food and beverage cans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found measurable amounts of BPA in the bodies of more than 90 percent of the U.S. population studied.[1]  The highest estimated daily intakes of BPA occur in infants and children.[2]

BPA is more likely to leach out of plastic when its temperature is increased, as when one warms up food in the microwave or warms up a baby bottle.[2] In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of BPA in baby bottles—after several large manufacturers had already voluntarily removed it. Before the voluntary removal and the ban, most plastic baby bottles contained BPA.

Despite the ban on BPA in baby bottles, two recent studies show that newborns are still being exposed to the chemical.[3,4]  Infants may be exposed to BPA before they were born because of the mothers’ exposures, during exposure to plastic tubing if they are in the ICU (intensive care unit) in the hospital, or  through the breast milk.  Pregnant women and nursing mothers may want to try to avoid foods and beverages from containers lined with BPA, such as canned foods and sodas.  Fortunately, however, these same studies reported that infants may be able to remove most BPA from their bodies within a few days.[3,4]

How BPA Affects Our Bodies

BPA mimics and interferes with the action of estrogen–a hormone that helps us develop when we’re young and eventually reproduce.[5]   BPA has been widely detected in blood, urine, amniotic fluid and breast milk, and has been found in nearly all adults and children who have been tested.[6] For that reason, scientists are concerned about BPA’s  effects on fetuses, infants, and children at current exposure levels, and whether it can affect the prostate, brain, testicles, breasts, and behavior.[2]  Studies suggest that the more a baby is exposed to estrogen while in the womb, the greater the risk of breast, testicular and prostate cancer later in life.[7,8,9]

BPA’s Effects on Animals and Human Cells

A study published in October 2008 also found that cancer cells exposed to low levels of BPA were more resistant to chemotherapy.[10] Studies have also linked the hormonal effects of BPA from canned cat food to the epidemic of hyperthyroidism in cats, especially females.[11] After studies of rats and mice linked BPA to hyperactivity and brain activity, the first study of nonhuman primates found that BPA levels were associated with cognitive problems that could affect learning and memory.[12]  BPA experiments on rats linked the chemical to precancerous lesions in the prostate and mammary glands, and to early puberty in females at BPA dosages similar to human exposures, according to a 2008 report on BPA by the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program.[2] A 2014 study that  used mice to model prostate cancer in humans showed that a baby’s BPA exposure in the womb may increase risk of prostate cancer later in life.[13] Another similar study in mice is creating concern about liver cancer risks as well.[14]  While early concerns were based primarily on animal studies and research on cells, there is increasing evidence from human studies that BPA causes serious harm. For instance, researchers have discovered possible links between BPA exposure and insulin resistance (a risk factor for Type II diabetes), increased formation and growth of fat cells (which can lead to obesity), and reproductive health problems for both men and women.[6]

The evidence so far is based on links scientists have observed between high levels in the body and health problems. Studies in which some people are intentionally exposed to BPA and others aren’t (randomized, controlled trials) have never been done because it could be dangerous and therefore is unethical.

Health Effects in Girls and Women

There is concern about the impact of BPA on early puberty in girls. Studies have also linked BPA to frequent miscarriages.[6]  In addition, several studies have found a connection between high levels of BPA and decreased fertility in women, including less success with in vitro fertilization treatments.[15]

Health Effects in Boys and Men

A 2009 research article reported that men who were exposed to very high levels of BPA at work had less sexual desire and were four times as likely to have problems getting and maintaining an erection than men who did not work with BPA.[16] BPA-exposed workers were also seven times as likely to have problems with ejaculation. Although the men in this study had much higher levels of BPA exposure than the average man, this study demonstrates that BPA can harm men’s sexual health and that workers need to be protected. Research is needed to study the effects of more typical BPA exposures on men’s sexual health.  Unfortunately, several other studies have also linked high BPA levels to poorer sperm quality in men as well.[17] 

Earlier Responses to BPA Concerns

The National Toxicology Program 2008 report recommended that more studies be conducted on BPA’s health effects on humans, and the report stated: “The possibility that bisphenol A may alter human development cannot be dismissed.”[2] Also in 2008, based primarily on two chemical industry-funded studies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed that BPA is safe.[5] However, according to a publication of the American Chemical Society, the national professional association for chemists, 153 government-funded BPA experiments on lab animals and tissues found adverse effects while only 14 did not.[1]

After the 2008 National Toxicology report and FDA report, new studies of humans added greatly to concerns about the health risks of BPA.

In the fall of 2008, a major study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that adults with higher levels of BPA in their bodies were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease.[18] Adults with higher BPA were also more likely to be obese, but diabetes and heart disease were correlated with BPA levels even when obesity was statistically controlled.

Is it possible that BPA is contributing to the obesity epidemic and diabetes epidemic among children and adults? Wouldn’t it be ironic if the most popular water bottles for athletes contributed to obesity and diabetes?

Even before these more recent studies, the FDA Science Board, which consists of independent scientists who do not work for the FDA, disagreed with the FDA’s safety claims. The Science Board recommended in October 2008 that the FDA analyze the research literature again, relying less on the two industry-funded studies and taking into account the best independent studies. It also recommended that new research be conducted to examine BPA safety concerns. Government funding for that research was announced in late 2009.

What’s Been Done to Limit the Potentially Harmful Effects of BPA

In July 2013, the FDA responded to a petition from Representative Markey and comments from consumer groups by banning the use of BPA in packaging for infant formula, following on their 2012 ban of BPA from baby bottles.  But further action from FDA to eliminate BPA from cans and other food containers still has not happened.  Prior to the FDA ban, bills had been introduced in several states, cities, and in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (S. 593/H.R. 1523) to ban BPA in children’s products. Suffolk County in New York became the first in the U.S. to ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups, in March, 2009.   In March 2009, the six major manufacturers of baby bottles in the United States announced that they would no longer sell baby bottles made with BPA in the U.S.[19] A few days later, SUNOCO, a BPA manufacturer, announced that it would require customers to confirm that no BPA would be used in food or water containers for children under 3 years of age.[20]  In 2008, manufacturers such as Playtex and Nalgene and retailers such as Wal-Mart pledged to remove BPA from their products and stores by the end of the year.[21]

Despite these efforts, BPA still remains in many canned food and beverages sold to people and pets in the U.S. and other countries.  But at least two producers of canned foods in the U.S. have BPA-free cans: Eden Foods began using BPA-free cans in 1999 and now uses BFA-free cans for everything except highly acidic tomato products, and Vital Choice introduced new cans and pouches for its fish products at the end of 2008.[22,23] According to Eden, it costs the company $300,000 more a year to produce BPA-free cans, which are 14% more expensive than industry standard cans; this translates into about 2 cents more per can.[24] In 2012, Campbell’s also announced that it would phase out BPA from its canned foods, although this has not yet happened.

What You Can Do to Lower Your Family’s Exposure to BPA

While we wait for more research to be conducted, you may want to avoid BPA. Is that possible? A 2011 study from the Silent Spring Institute showed that you can lower your BPA levels significantly by avoiding pre-packaged food and keeping your food from coming into contact with plastic containers, plastic utensils, and non-stick pans during preparation, eating and storage.[25]

BPA is found in polycarbonate (PC) plastics, which are typically clear and hard, marked with the recycle symbol “7″ or may contain the letters “PC” near the recycle symbol.

To avoid warming up food in plastic containers with these or other chemicals, use stoneware, china, or glass dishes and containers in your microwave. In 2012, the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups, after several large manufacturers had already voluntarily removed it. However, bottles from before 2012 may still contain BPA.  Another problem is that manufacturers are replacing BPA in plastic bottles with other chemicals that experts believe have many of the same effects as BPA but that we know even less about. For that reason, parents may want to include safer alternatives such as glass baby bottles, particularly for use at home.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

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