The state of California recently admitted what many consumers and health and nutrition experts have been speculating for years: Canned food chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is toxic and may cause health problems. After officially adding the chemical to its Prop 65 list—a list of substances that are known carcinogens or endocrine-disruptors—the state will now require warning labels to be posted on products that contain high levels of BPA sold in California.
"This decision is a step in the right direction," says SHAPE Diet Doctor Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The Six Pillars of Nutrition. "I think this is good validation that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals have real effects on our bodies. I hope this will be the first of several similar decisions."
What is bisphenol A?
BPA is what's known as an "everywhere chemical" because it shows up in seemingly innocent items you use every day, such as canned foods, plastic water bottles, pacifiers, and teethers. BPA also used to be present in baby food containers, but a few years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned it—not because it deemed it harmful but because of widespread public outcry.
There is some disagreement within the healthy living community about how just how bad BPA is for you, but the chemical has been linked to a wide variety of health effects including behavioral changes, altered brain behavior, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
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"BPA is what's referred to as an endocrine disruptor, meaning that once in the body, it mimics estrogen and can block testosterone," says registered dietitian Julie Upton. "When something mimics estrogen or has an estrogenic effect, it can increase your risk of certain types of cancers that are estrogen-dependent, such as breast cancer or ovarian cancer. BPA can also increase your risk of prostate cancer."
What does this mean for consumers?
California's Prop 65 is a "right to know" law that was approved by California voters in 1986 and requires the state to maintain a list of chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. It also includes asbestos, lead, mercury, and benzene. However, because the proposed "safe harbor level" or the maximum allowable dose for BPA is set so high at 290 micrograms per day, it's possible most BPA-containing products sold in California won't actually have to carry a label, Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote on her blog.
"That is a relatively high level of exposure and is based on high-dose studies from a 2008 National Toxicology Program report. This is not likely to result in any warning labels on products in California, but it can be changed, and we think it should be, based on newer science, which continues to find evidence of harm at much lower levels of exposure."
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How can you minimize your exposure to BPA?
BPA leaches into the food and water supply, making it hard to avoid. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found BPA in the urine of 93 percent of the people it's tested and, according to Roussell, it's ubiquitous in fetal blood tests as well. However there are a few ways to minimize your exposure to it:
1. Eat less processed food. Both Roussell and Upton agree that by eating fewer foods that come in cans or packages, you can reduce your exposure significantly.
2. Lose a few pounds. "Fat cells are estrogenic, so one way to minimize the potential for estrogen-driven problems is to keep body fat in check," Upton says. "This doesn't deal with BPA directly but will reduce your estrogen exposure."
3. Go BPA-Free. More and more companies are starting to phase BPA out of their products. If you purchase a lot of canned foods, look for brands that are labeled "BPA-free," such as Eden Organics. If you find yourself reusing plastic water bottles a lot, try to look for brands with a number 2, 4, or 5 on them, but avoid any with the number 7—this is an indication that the bottle is manufactured with polycarbonate and contains BPA.
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UPDATE: As of April 19, a California judge has granted a preliminary injunction in the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) case against the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment's decision to add BPA to the Prop 65 list, effectively removing BPA from the list after all, at least until a decision is made.
"We do not believe there is a scientific basis for including BPA on the Proposition 65 list and we look forward to our case being heard on the merits sometime this summer," Steve Hentges, executive director of ACC's polycarbonate and BPA global group said after the injunction was issued.
The suit from the ACC maintains that California EPA officials made the decision to put BPA on Prop 65 by "circumventing the state's scientific process by allowing administrative staff to override the decision of a scientific panel from 2009." The judge agreed with the plaintiff, hence the injunction.