BPA is Back -- New Science Proves Safety

Health & Wellness on 02.18.13
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Image: Matt Hurst/CC BY-SA 2.0

BPA is not so bad after all. At least, there is not enough of it in our bodies to be causing obesity, diabetes, cancer, liver disease or heart attacks -- just a few of the modern diseases that have been correlated with the growing presence of this plastic additive in baby and drinking bottles as well as canned food linings.

The news stems from a session at last week's conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) entitled: Can Exposure Science Quell the Furor over Environmental Endocrine Disruption?

The Furor Over BPA

Concerned parents have been inundated by studies finding toxic chemicals in the bodies of pregnant women and in our kids' favorite canned soups and pasta.

BPA belongs to a class of chemicals suspected to act as endocrine disruptors. What that means in non-scientific terms is that BPA can act like the chemical messengers our body uses naturally. If our body gets the wrong message at the wrong time, the result can be birth defects, neurological problems, even diseases that might be passed on to future generations.

No wonder advocates for childrens' health have suggested we look for alternatives to BPA.

Fueling the furor is an overwhelming sense of loss of control: these chemicals are in our environment, in our food, in everyday household items. Who is in charge of keeping us safe in the face of harmful chemicals?

Can Science Quell the Furor?

If this science came from an industry-funded source, it could be ignored pending independent confirmation. But work funded entirely by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program certainly merits a bit of trust.

At the AAAS conference, six topics examined recent exposure science on BPA. Presenting a review of BPA concentrations in humans -- representing 30,000 people, including women and infants, in 19 countries -- the authors posed the question of whether BPA concentrations in humans are high enough to cause endocrine disruption. The answer is stated bluntly: "They are not."

Which raises the next question:

can this knowledge affect the public’s view of the risks posed by BPA?

Why Facts Don't Quell Fear

A scientists will keep an open mind and look for studies that can repeat the same conclusion, just to make sure we did not overlook some important factor or have a flaw in the design of our study. But the information presented in this seminar gives strong support to the idea that we do not need to fear BPA as current levels of exposure.

But a scientist saying so does not suffice. Especially not when fear makes better headlines. Which brings us to a real problem: this stuff is complex.

The 'exposure science' that was discussed amongst members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has math, models, and medicine underlying it that make it virtually impossible for the average concerned parent to understand. Here is an overview, in much simpler language:

  • The amount of BPA found in a review of many studies was not as high as that found in some studies, suggesting that the studies that found high levels of BPA reflect contaminated samples or some other form of distortion.
  • The amount of BPA found in urine is not a good indicator of how much BPA the body has in the bloodstream, where it might confuse the body, leaning to disease. This simple statement is, in the scientific discussion, hidden behind a lot of techno-speak about intestines, livers, and chemical reactions required for the BPA to be harmful in the blood.
  • The body still prefers estrogen, the endocrine messenger our bodies are designed to understand, so it would take a lot more BPA "screaming" its message before our bodies would start listening.

So do you feel better about BPA based on the simple version of the facts?

But other scientists will continue to publish reports about BPA and other endocrine disruptors in which they continue to find mechanisms by which these chemicals could cause harm. Those studies are not lies: these chemicals can have harmful effects when studied under different conditions. Just not at the levels of actual human exposure, according to the facts above.

The Important Message for Parents

We always look for the take-away message that gives control back to those of us trying to do our best for our kids in a complicated world. Which brings us to the most important message that the sum of science on BPA delivers so far: a lifestyle rich in BPA does correlate with disease. BPA probably cannot be blamed, at least at the levels encountered. The scientists discussing BPA point to another insidious hazard:

Diet is the main source of BPA. So an obvious possibility is that poorer diets are associated with higher intake of BPA.

Poorer diets -- that means processed foods high in sugars and fats -- could be the real reason why studies show people with higher BPA levels suffer from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. The parent hoping to give their child a better future will be thankful for the can linings that keep food safe to eat when offering their kids their favorite canned meals, accepting BPA's role in reducing food-borne illnesses, because there really is no BPA substitute. Then they will balance those convenient moments with many more meals of good, fresh home cooking. But that is not science; it's just plain common sense.  

 

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