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Annie Leonard
Annie Leonard

As the writer and host of The Story of Stuff, Annie has inspired millions to work toward a sustainable future.

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The Backstory on BPA

BPA- what it does, how it’s used, and why it’s concerning

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a toxic, endocrine-disrupting chemical that negatively impacts our hormonal systems, contributing to a host of harmful health effects. Hundreds of scientific studies have linked extremely small amounts of BPA, measured in parts per billion and even parts per trillion, to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, infertility, type-2 diabetes, obesity, asthma, and behavioral changes including attention deficit disorder. It is likely that people are exposed to BPA from canned foods at levels that are compromising our health.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 93 percent of Americans tested have detectable levels of BPA in their urine, suggesting that people are consistently exposed and re-exposed to BPA through the chemical’s presence in foods and from other sources. BPA has been detected in breast milk, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood, suggesting that babies are exposed to BPA as newborns and even before they are born, during critical windows of development and vulnerability.

BPA is a chemical used to make, among other things, the epoxy-resin linings of metal food cans. The epoxy lining forms a barrier between the metal and the food, which helps create a seal, keeping the food safe from bacterial contamination. But while BPA-based epoxy resins solve one food safety problem, they unfor­tunately create another, as BPA can leach from the resin, make its way into food, and ultimately end up in our bodies.

The Safety of BPA-Alternatives
Growing concern about BPA’s adverse health impacts has increased consumer demand for BPA-free products and packaging. As science and consumer pressure increased, manufacturers and retailers began to replace BPA in water bottles and baby bottles with a host of unknown BPA alternatives. Soon after, when data emerged that BPA was also found in thermal receipt paper, businesses began switching to paper containing BPS, a classic case of “regrettable substitution” in which the replacement chemical was similarly estrogenic and as toxic as the chemical it was replacing. Analyses of alternatives for both plastic bottles and receipt paper revealed concerns about the safety of many of the BPA replacements.

Identifying and assessing the safety of BPA alterna­tives in food cans has proven more challenging, largely due to inadequate data requirements by the FDA and highly protected trade secrets in this product sector.

The research we conducted with the Ecology Center, as a part of the Buyer Beware report, uncovered five major coating types among the 192 cans tested for this report:

  • Acrylic resins
  • BPA-based epoxy
  • Oleoresin
  • Polyester resins
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) copolymers

However we know very little about the safety of these materials which include unknown additives and cross-linking agents used to provide the properties necessary to make them stable and effective can linings. 

Current Regulation of BPA
State legislation to more strictly regulate BPA in food packaging was first introduced in 2005 in California. Since that time, more than 30 states and localities have introduced policies to ban or restrict BPA. The first state to pass a ban on BPA in any product was Minnesota in 2009, with Connecticut following soon afterward. Thirteen states have adopted a total of 19 policies to regulate the use of BPA in consumer products. Those states have adopted policies regulating BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups (a “sippy cup” is defined by the FDA as a spill-proof cup, including its closures and lids, designed to train babies or toddlers to drink from cups), and a few of those states have gone further, restricting BPA in infant formula cans, baby food jars, sports water bottles and even thermal receipt paper.

In response to a food additive petition filed by the American Chemistry Council, the FDA announced it would ban BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups as of December 2012. A subsequent citizen petition filed by then Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) prompted the FDA to ban BPA in infant formula packaging in 2013. It is important to note that the agency ruled on these “citizen petitions” based on market abandonment, not safety. The FDA amended its existing regulations to no longer allow the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups or infant formula packaging to reflect their assessment that industry had abandoned the use of BPA in these items.

In 2015, the California EPA listed BPA as a female reproductive toxicant subject to regulation by Prop. 65, which requires consumer products that contain BPA, above a yet-to-be-determined specified safe level, to carry a warning label.  In addition, four counties (Albany, Schenectady and Suffolk in New York, and Multnomah in Oregon) and the city of Chicago have also adopted policies to regulate BPA in food packaging.

The momentum for restricting or prohibiting BPA in food packaging is now global, although few national governments besides France have attempted to regu­late BPA in food can linings.

The European Union banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2011 (Directive 2011/8/EU), but the ban was rescinded in 2015 after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a highly contentious re-evaluation of BPA exposure and toxicity. However, some EU nation states continue to regulate BPA more strictly, despite the EFSA ruling, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Sweden.

France banned the use of BPA in all food containers as of 2015 and in infant food packaging as of 2013. Prior to this, a number of French cities had banned baby bottles made with BPA in city nurseries and day care centers.

Denmark placed a temporary national ban on BPA in materials in contact with food for children aged 0–3 years (infant feeding bottles, feeding cups and pack­aging for baby food). This ban became effective July 1, 2010.

Belgium banned the use of BPA in food contact materials intended for children up to the age of 3, effective 2013.

Congressional Action

Proposed federal legislation would force disclosure of BPA in food can linings and more strictly regulate BPA and the safety of BPA alterna­tives in all food packaging.

On March 19, 2015, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introduced S. 821, the BPA in Food Packaging Right to Know Act, which would require the labeling of all canned food containing BPA. The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to take the following steps: 1) issue a revised safety assess­ment for food containers composed in whole or in part of bisphenol A (BPA), taking into consideration different types and uses of such containers; and 2) determine whether there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to BPA through food containers or other items composed in whole or in part of BPA, taking into consideration potential adverse effects from low-dose exposure and the effects of exposure on vulnerable popula­tions, including pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly and populations with high exposure to BPA.

The bill also amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale of a food if its container is composed in whole or in part of BPA, unless the label includes the following statement: This food packaging contains BPA, an endocrine-dis­rupting chemical, according to the National Institutes of Health.

On July 9, 2014, the “Ban Poisonous Additives (BPA) Act of 2014” was introduced into both cham­bers of Congress by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y. The bill would empower the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove BPA from food packaging, label food packaging that still contains BPA while alternatives are developed, encourage manufacturers to replace this hazardous chem­ical with alternatives that are safer for workers and consumers, and require the agency to review the safety of thousands of food contact substances.

The Ban Poisonous Additives Act (BPA Act) also establishes the following requirements: 1) Reusable food and beverage containers (such as thermoses) that contain BPA cannot be sold; 2) Other food and beverage containers (such as cans) containing BPA cannot be introduced into commerce; and (3) The Food and Drug Administration will periodically review the list of substances that have been deemed safe for use in food and beverage containers in order to determine whether new scientific evidence exists that the substance may pose adverse health risks, taking into consideration vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, workers and dispropor­tionately exposed communities.

Market-Based Advocacy
As consumers, we have a right to know what's in the food we buy. That's why the Breast Cancer Fund launched the Cans Not Cancer campaign, aimed at convincing manufacturers to replace BPA in canned food with transparently, safer alternatives. 

In its short history, the Cans Not Cancer campaign has educated thousands of people, generated consumer demand for BPA-free canned foods and safer alternatives, revealed the presence of BPA in classic kids' foods and Thanksgiving staples, and secured promises from manufacturers to move away from BPA.
Yet a number of challenges remain despite our ongoing efforts to remove BPA from canned food linings:

  • No city or state and only one world government (France) has banned BPA from the lining of all food cans
  • National brands and retailers, for the most part, have been moving too slowly to get BPA out of canned food
  • No national brands or retailers are labeling which of their foods are still packaged in cans containing BPA
  • Only a handful of national brands publicly disclose the BPA alternatives they are using
  • The safety of BPA alternatives used in can linings remains unclear, as can-lining suppliers are not being transparent about the full chemical identity or safety of the linings they offer
  • The federal system for regulating the safety of the chemicals in canned food and other food packaging chemicals is badly broken

We're proud to say that many canned food makers are phasing out their use of BPA. Problem solved? Not exactly. Many of these companies aren't publicly disclosing what they're using instead of BPA, which is why we decided to team up with the Ecology Center to analyze their can linings to find out for ourselves.  Read our Buyer Beware report to find out more about toxic BPA and regrettable substitutes found in the linings of canned foods.

FAQ

  • What evidence do we have that BPA is harmful?
  • The FDA says BPA in can linings is safe.  Why does the Breast Cancer Fund feel differently?
  • Are children or adults more susceptible to the harmful effects of BPA?
  • How do the chemicals in the can liners get into the food?
  • Should I buy canned food labeled "BPA-free"? Are these cans safer?
  • What lining is preferable? Are there any can liners that we know are safe? 
  • Tips (link to tips page)

What evidence do we have that BPA is harmful?
BPA is a synthetic chemical that is recognized as endocrine-disrupting because of its effects on hormones, including estrogen.

The scientific evidence linking BPA exposure to harm in humans is compelling and growing: More than 300 animal and human studies have linked BPA exposure, often in exquisitely small amounts measured in parts per billion and parts per trillion, to a number of health problems, including breast and prostate cancer, asthma, obesity, behavioral changes including attention deficit disorder, altered development of the brain and immune system, low birth weight and lowered sperm counts.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 93 percent of Americans tested have detectable levels of BPA in their urine , , suggesting that people are consistently exposed and re-exposed to BPA through foods and from other sources. BPA has been detected in breast milk, amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood, suggesting that babies are exposed to BPA as newborns and even before they are born, during critical windows of development and vulnerability.

The FDA says BPA in can linings is safe.  Why does the Breast Cancer Fund  feel differently?
The regulatory systems governing chemicals used in food packaging fall far short of ensuring that these chemicals are safe for consumption. For example, hazardous chemicals such as phthalates, several of which have been banned in children’s products, are approved for use in food packaging. We know from many research studies that chemicals present in food packaging routinely leach into food and enter people’s bodies.

Although BPA is eliminated relatively quickly by the body, it is considered functionally persistent because we are exposed to BPA from multiple sources many times a day. BPA is therefore present in our bodies almost continuously.

In 2010, the FDA joined other federal health agencies in expressing “some concern” over BPA safety and publicly supported industry taking action to remove BPA from baby bottles, feeding cups and the lining of formula cans and other food cans. In 2014, however, the FDA reviewed published research studies and concluded that BPA as currently used does not pose a threat to human health. There are several troubling aspects of this FDA review:

1) They used stringent criteria to eliminate most available studies from consideration. For example, all 48 epidemiological studies available were rejected. The vast majority of animal and cell studies were also rejected.

To be sure, not all studies are designed and executed well. Reviews like the FDA’s must choose which studies to include based on some set of criteria. But in this case, the FDA reviewers made notes that undermine the case for rejecting certain studies. “These data support a plausible relationship between urinary BPA levels and obesity,” they wrote on one, for example. A Newsweek reporter wrote more about this in a 2015 article. { http://www.newsweek.com/2015/03/13/bpa-fine-if-you-ignore-most-studies-about-it-311203.html }

2) The FDA’s evaluation methods do not consider the possibility of very low-dose effects like those observed in multiple research studies on BPA.{ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388189 }  Scientists are calling for regulatory agencies to use newer hormone-based tests when evaluating chemicals that may be hormonally active. {http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23411111 }
BPA interacts with certain hormone receptors, causing a variety of downstream effects such as cell proliferation, at extremely low doses.                                         {http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19074586}  At higher doses, BPA’s activity in cells may actually be lower. Hormone disruption by chemicals such as BPA is an intricately complex and growing field of research.

3) A stark disparity is seen between the findings of industry-funded studies and non-industry-funded studies about BPA. A 2006 review {http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16256977 } found that all the studies funded by industry found no harm from BPA, while almost all of the non-industry studies found health effects. While funding from industry does not automatically render a study useless, this disparity is suspicious.

Are children or adults more susceptible to the harmful effects of BPA?
The continued presence of BPA — and potentially unsafe alternatives — in the lining of canned foods has resulted in ongoing hazardous exposures to workers, low-income populations, pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations. Prenatal exposures to BPA can have lifelong effects. Human studies have found evidence linking prenatal BPA exposures to altered thyroid hormones, wheezing, behavioral changes and emotional difficulties, alterations in birthweight and childhood BMI.

Data from animal studies also suggests that prenatal exposures may be of particular concern. Many of these studies show negative health effects including breast cancer, prostate cancer, metabolic changes, decreased fertility, neurological changes and immunological changes at doses much lower than the EPA-designated “safe dose” for BPA (50 μg/kg body weight/day).

BREAST CANCER
With regard to breast cancer, laboratory studies have demonstrated that BPA alters mammary gland development in rats and mice. Because rodent mammary gland development follows a trajectory similar to that of humans, these studies are considered relevant for human breast cancer. Prenatal exposures of rats and mice to BPA have also been shown to result in precancerous growths and mammary tumors. A 2013 study found that exposure to BPA prenatally and perinatally (soon after birth) alters mammary gland development and results in abnormalities that manifest during adulthood. Some of the alterations in mammary gland development may make rodents more susceptible to tumors later in life.

In 2015, the Endocrine Society released its second statement on endocrine-disrupting compounds in which it identified BPA as an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) having one of the strongest associations with impaired mammary development. Even more worrisome, recent evidence from studies of cultured breast cancer cells indicates that BPA exposure may reduce the efficacy of chemotherapeutic and hormonal treatments for breast cancer.

How do the chemicals in the can liners get into the food?
All can linings start with a mix of ingredients, including chemical building blocks called monomers. For example, BPA is a monomer for BPA-based epoxy. Cross-linkers and stabilizers are also added. The monomers and cross-linkers react with one another, binding together to make up the final coating. However, a portion of the monomer and cross-linker is typically left over in the final coating. These molecules are small and able to migrate out of the coating and into food contacting it.  Considerable research has shown this.

Some research suggests that much of the BPA present in canned foods gets there during the sterilization step, in which the filled can is heated. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25575039}. Heat greatly increases migration rates.

Our study identified a major research gap regarding residual chemicals in food can linings: Dozens of different chemicals other than BPA are used in the various alternative coatings, as well as in BPA-based epoxy. Research is lacking on safety of these chemicals and the extent to which they may migrate into food.

Should I buy canned food labeled "BPA-free"? Are these cans safer?
Yes, it is a good idea to avoid BPA. However, our investigation questions the safety of BPA-free coatings as well. Due to lack of safety assessments, retailers and brands could be replacing BPA-based epoxy with regrettable substitutes. The data from FDA’s review and approval of packaging additives are extremely limited when it comes to BPA-free can coatings. We also have found very little data in the published scientific literature regarding the health effects of BPA epoxy replacements.

We suggest 1) avoiding cans with BPA epoxy and 2) minimizing consumption of canned foods in general.

What lining is preferable? Are there any can liners that we know are safe? 
Thus far, we do not see any replacements in use with sufficient data on their safety or capacity to migrate. We know the canned food and can lining industry is actively exploring replacements, and we encourage transparency about the chemistry and safety data regarding those alternatives to both food companies and consumers.


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2010, March 29). Bisphenol A Action Plan. Retrieved from www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/bpa_action_plan.pdf.

Calafat, A. M., Kuklenyik, Z., Reidy, J. A., Caudill, S. P., Ekong, J., & Needham, L. L. (2005). Urinary concentrations of bisphenol A and 4-nonylphenol in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives, 391-395.

Calafat A, Ye X, Wong L, Reidy J, Needham L (2008). Exposure of the U.S. Population to Bisphenol A and 4-tertiary-Octylphenol: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect, 116 (1): 39-44.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2010, March 29). Bisphenol A Action Plan. Retrieved from www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/bpa_action_plan.pdf.