One of our former nutrition residents, and successful functional nutritionist, Juston Jaco CNS, is our guest blog contributor this month. We’ve written about BPA before. But not for several years. It’s time to shine the spotlight once again on this harmful plastic compound, not least because the pandemic has likely increased your exposure. Read on to find out more.
According to a study released just last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Network Open), having high levels of bisphenol A (BPA) in the body is associated with a 49% increased risk of death within 10 years.
Did that stop you in your tracks? It did us. Of course, association is not causation, but this study suggests that chronic BPA exposure may reduce one’s life expectancy within a decade. BPA is one of the most studied synthetic chemicals to date: For decades, scientists have voiced concerns about these chemicals because they disrupt our bodies’ natural hormones, leading to a variety of fertility problems in women and men. It’s also completely pervasive, found in the urine of nearly every American adult.
One of the reasons which this is important now is because there are sources of BPA exposure that we’ve all been encountering more of during the pandemic. And because even those of us in the know can still be surprised about just where BPA can hide in our everyday environment.
Sources of BPA
So just how does BPA get into us? Bisphenol A, called BPA for short, along with several other synthetic chemicals are known in the environmental community as “everywhere chemicals” since they are found in so many consumer products. Here are some sources, including perhaps some unexpected ones.
- Plastic plates, paper towels, and toilet paper: If you use any of these products, you likely have circulating levels of BPA in your body. When you rip and tear paper plates, paper towels, and toilet paper apart, tiny BPA particles circulate in the air, further increasing your exposure as they travel. From there, the dust that collects on all surfaces of the house is contaminated with BPA.
- Receipts: If you handle a high volume of thermal paper receipts, then you have increased urinary BPA.
- Plastic food containers: This should be the most obvious as most people’s exposure to BPA comes from food and water stored in plastic containers. One study found drinking water from polycarbonate bottles increased BPA levels by two-thirds in just one week. BPA essentially leaches from these containers into our food and water easily, especially when they are heated in the microwave.
- Dental materials: In-office exposure comes from the material used to treat and prevent cavities. Your trip to the dentist can contribute to low-level BPA exposure for a few hours after placement, according to the American Dental Association (although the ADA states this is thought to be transient). Some research, however, indicates an ongoing release and source of exposure. Ask your dentist if they are using products that contain BPA (or phthalates).
- Canned food and Infant formula container: This should be another no-brainer. BPA in can linings also leaches into food from the lining of metal food cans, even more so when they are at room temperature or warmer. In one CDC report on their website (found here), researchers found traces of BPA in the urine of nearly all 2,517 participants, likely due to canned food exposure, but with BPA so ubiquitous it’s hard to pinpoint the exact source. Even BPA-free containers have BPA-like compounds in their containers (and less is known about these mimics).
- Plastic wrap: Plastic wrap is probably the “leachiest” of all BPA products. BPA is frequently found in plastic wrap (although many companies have started to remove BPA from their products; this begs the question, “Are they just replacing it with a BPA-like substance?”). Avoid plastic wrap as much as you can. Instead, you can use reusable wax or cloth coverings made of natural material.
- Shower curtains: BPA is also found in a variety of consumer products like shower curtains, which can off gas, especially when heated.
The truth is we are all exposed. As an industrial chemical that has been around since the 1960s, BPA continues to be used in the manufacturing of polycarbonate plastics (i.e. water bottles) as well as resins to coat and seal many other products on the list above. As a result, our generation has had 60 years of increasing exposure to BPA. BPA and its related sister chemicals (i.e. BPS, BPM, etc.) can be found in all kinds of beverage containers, compact disks, plastic dinnerware, car parts, and impact-resistant safety equipment.
How is BPA so problematic for health?
The chemical compound BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it affects the hormones in the body. Fetuses and babies are especially vulnerable. Exposure levels have been linked to fetal abnormalities, low birth weight, and brain and behavior disorders in infants and children, as well as infertility, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity in adults, and erectile dysfunction in workers exposed to BPA. Death from any cause may now be added to that list. This comes as the most recent finding that people who had higher levels of BPA in their urine were about 49% more likely to die during a 10-year period.
Many naysayers counter that exposures to toxins like BPA are small and that the body has inbuilt mechanisms to rid itself of toxins. Unfortunately, there is ever-growing evidence that low levels of exposure can be harmful. For example, the large-scale CLARITY-BPA study (funded by FDA and the National Toxicology Program) found multiple effects at low levels dismissed previously as safe.
What BPA Exposure Means in a Pandemic
It’s especially critical you know the risk of exposure during COVID-19, since studies are now showing that using hand sanitizer is another gateway for the chemicals to absorb into the body. Plus, hand sanitizer is stored in BPA bottles, so you are likely getting a higher dose!
If you handle BPA-emitting products (like thermal receipts) after using hand sanitizer, you may absorb almost tenfold more bisphenols into your body, likely due to the degrading effect of sanitizers on your skin barrier and your skin microbiome (which likely processes many toxins for you, just as it does in your gut).
Do we still use hand sanitizer? The answer to that is yes – it’s a proven way to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. And given the new variants, as well as the potential acute and long-term risks of the disease, this continues to be important. However, it means we double down on reducing our exposure to BPA and other toxicants.
What You Can Do
Food packaging is the biggest source of exposure to BPA in children and adults. If you avoid canned and plastic-packaged food consumption, you avoid the major source of bisphenol exposure. The alternative to canned fruits and vegetables is seasonal and fresh produce that you can then freeze and consume at a later date.
Other ways to protect you and your family if you are concerned about exposure to BPA and its relatives include:
- Avoiding microwave foods in plastic containers
- Choose glass or stainless steel (and definitely not plastic), when buying and storing foods
- Buy dried and fresh foods always; frozen foods if you are in a pinch (the plastic bags on frozen foods are still a minor concern, but not as much a canned goods. Freezing significantly reduces the spread of plastic components into food. The caveat here is that if you buy frozen foods in plastic, do NOT microwave them in their packaging.
- Don’t use harsh detergents or wash plastics in the dishwasher
- Skip thermal paper receipts (opt for email or text only)
We can’t completely rid the body of BPA, but we can reduce exposure. Fortunately, just a few days of eliminating BPA-like products from our lifestyle, we can lower the amount of BPA in our bloodstream. And it’s not too late to start.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Minimally-Packaged Whole Foods
According to research published in Environmental Health Perspectives, conducted by Silent Spring Institute and Breast Cancer Fund, a fresh food diet can significantly reduce levels of BPA and phthalates after just three days.
The research team assessed BPA levels in adults and children from five families by testing their urine before, during, and after a three-day fresh food diet (urinary excretion is the most common way our bodies get rid of these chemicals). Following a complete fresh food diet, participants ate organic meals with no canned food and absolutely minimal plastic packaging and stored food in glass and stainless steel containers (instead of common plastic containers they had been using).
While families were consuming the fresh food meal plan, average levels of BPA in urine decreased by over 60%. Reductions were even more pronounced for the highest exposures, which decreased by over 70%. When individuals went back to their conventional diets, their BPA levels increased back to pre-intervention levels.
Takeaway: This research provides compelling evidence that removing BPA from food packaging significantly reduces exposures for adults and children.