Canning BPA

There’s an incredible selection of canned foods on the shelves of American grocery stores. They come decked with colorful wrappers and fun names. Lately, they boast health benefits like less salt and no trans fats. But there’s one serious omission on the label — the list of ingredients does not include bisphenol A, or BPA.

Virtually all canned foods in the United States have a protective lining made with epoxy resin, which contains BPA, a synthetic chemical that mimics estrogen. Even many cans labeled organic have BPA, although companies now are developing alternatives. Used to make hard, clear polycarbonate plastic, BPA has been part of our food chain for more than 50 years. Some 200 animal studies have concluded that the substance may be harmful — and that has sparked new efforts in Congress to ban BPA in food containers.

About 2 billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States each year, which helps explain why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical in the urine of 93 percent of adults and children they tested.

This op-ed also published by:
The San Francisco Chronicle

Dr. Megan Schwarzman, a family physician and research scientist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health observed: “For a substance that’s very rapidly metabolized, for 93 percent of people tested to have measurable levels of BPA in their urine suggests that the majority of us are continuously exposed.”

Some companies have voluntarily stopped using BPA in plastic baby products and drinking bottles, but changing canned foods promises to be an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, many consumers do not know that cans contain BPA and that the chemical sometimes leaches from the container into food, especially with acidic content like tomatoes.

And although babies now may be given a BPA-free bottle, the drink itself could contain the chemical, which has been found to leach out of cans and into liquid infant formula.

Babies are thought to be more vulnerable to the chemical’s ill effects. Studies suggest that BPA exposure in utero or infancy may set the stage for health problems later in life, including breast and prostate cancer, and neurological and behavior problems. Some experts believe that adult exposure increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease. One study also found that BPA interferes with the ability of chemotherapy to do its job. Industry-funded research disputes these results, claiming that the chemical is safe at low exposure levels.

But low levels of exposure are at the heart of the continuing debate. We all like to think: “Well, a little isn’t going to hurt.” But in the case of BPA, some evidence suggests that a little could hurt, because the chemical is an endocrine disruptor that can interfere with the body’s hormone signals.

“Are the low doses that you can get from exposure in the kitchen significant?” Schwarzman said. “No one knows, but BPA is a hormone mimicker and hormones act at exceptionally low levels in the body. At the parts per trillion level.”

She explained that parts per trillion is the equivalent of one-twentieth of a drop of the chemical, diluted in an Olympic size swimming pool.

Food industry and business groups now are voicing opposition to a proposed amendment to a food safety bill, which would ban BPA from food and beverage containers. The Senate version of the bill, which passed the House last year, would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority over food production and safety. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have threatened to withdraw support for the bill because of the anti-BPA amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“I introduced my bill to ban BPA from being used in food containers because I feel very strongly that the government should protect people from harmful chemicals,” Feinstein said in a written statement. “I continue to believe that BPA should be addressed as a part of the food safety overhaul and plan to offer an amendment to do so.”

The House version of the food safety act included a provision authored by Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., requiring the FDA to evaluate the safety of BPA. Markey has also introduced a separate bill, still pending, to establish a federal ban on the chemical in all food and beverage containers.

In January the FDA modified its position that BPA is safe, saying the agency now has “some concern” and plans to pursue additional studies, along with the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. But many scientists and public health advocates believe that studies have already shown that BPA does not belong in our food supply.

For most Americans, the majority of BPA exposure occurs in our diets. For example, I grew up eating buckets of canned tomato soup, and, as a mother, I have fed my family gallons of sauces and chilis made with canned tomatoes. Until recently, I had no idea that this might pose a health hazard.

University of Missouri-Columbia endocrinologist Frederick vom Saal, a long-time researcher on the chemical, said he does not eat or drink anything that comes in a can. He dismisses the claim that it’s not possible to change the linings of canned foods.

“It has been done,” he said. “If you look at every way that BPA is being used … there are alternatives on the market.”

Also exposing us to BPA are non-food sources, such as dust on carbonless paper cash register receipts.

“We know that massive leaching from the surface of receipts occurs. It’s coated with free bisphenol A,” vom Saal said. “People have to be very careful handling receipts … you need to wash your hands.”

In response to consumer concerns, Japanese corporations reconfigured their canned food industry in the late 1990s, so that BPA no longer comes in direct contact with the food. Japan also changed its cash register receipts. These efforts resulted in a 50 percent reduction in BPA levels in Japanese citizens who were tested.

Surely the U.S. producers of BPA — Bayer MaterialScience, the Dow Chemical Company, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics and Sunoco Chemicals — could follow the example set in Japan. Some of these companies already have taken action to keep BPA out of baby bottles. Now it’s time for them to do the same thing with food containers.

As a mom and consumer, I would like to be able to buy canned food with a new label that boasts: “Now BPA free!” And I want to be handed a receipt that isn’t coated with the chemical.

FairWarning contributor Emily Dwass writes on food safety issues. She lives in Southern California.
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4 comments to “Canning BPA”

  1. John Nutting

    Emily,
    You are utterly mistaken in your understanding of the threat to humans from the use of bisphenol-A, and a little research into the various regulatory bodies that have shown that BPA occurs at levels much, much lower than the recommended tolerable daily intakes would have revealed the fact. Check with the European Food Safety Authority. Humans also metabolise BPA which is why it appears in urine. If you really want something to worry about, take a look at the anti-oxidants being promoted as dietary supplements: they have molecular weights and structures very close to phenols such as BPA yet are consumed in massively higher volumes.

  2. Marian Henderson

    I appreciated your article I caught in the SF Chronicle on vacation recently. As a dental hygienist, I recently learned in a Continuing Education Class that “composit” plastic fillings also have BPA.

  3. Janine Wiedmer

    Thank you for this very insightful article on BPA. I was wondering, are the cans from
    Europe BPA free? I know, that Europe has in general tighter restrictions on chemicals.

    Thank you so much!

  4. hena

    why do you need to buy canned foods nowadays? he?

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