Research published Monday in the journal BMJ Open revealed some frightening statistics about the incidence of Bisphenol A (BPA) among teenagers: 86 percent of 94 teenagers tracking their diet and submitting urine samples in a study showed evidence of BPA in their urine.
The culprit: plastic containers and bottles that seep potentially cancer-causing chemical through food and beverages. The teenage participants attempted to reduce their exposure to BPA by “avoiding fruits and vegetables packaged in plastic containers, tinned food, and meals designed to be reheated in a microwave in packaging containing BPA,” according to a press statement. Welp—anyone who’s had a long day and wants to just nuke some food in a microwave could be getting a dose of BPA to boot.
And while the teens were able to reduce their exposure to BPA, one author of the paper noted that it’s next to impossible to avoid BPA: “Our students who followed the BPA-free diet reported that it would be difficult to follow it long term, because labelling of BPA products was inconsistent. They found it difficult to source and identify BPA-free foods.”
That’s the crux of a problem highlighted BPA literature for the better part of a decade: Warnings about the health effects of cancer-causing chemicals that trickle into food and beverages from common plastic household products that then enter our systems—from babies sucking out of sippy cups to adults storing leftovers to heat up the next day. But it’s a problem neither public health nor the government has figured out yet.
It’s not the first time that urine samples have shown that an overwhelming majority of people have BPA floating in their bodies. A 2003-04 survey conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 93 percent of 2,517 urine samples of people over the age of 6 had BPA in their system, primarily from food and beverage containers; for infants, breast milk was a primary source.
But wasn’t BPA labeled a bad guy nearly a decade ago, when bespoke water bottles flashed the fact that they weren’t made of BPA and made slinging one around in public practically cool? Yes, but the history of BPA in our plastics runs deep—and continues to plague Western plastics consumption.
Public health advocates began warning of BPA’s dire effects several years ago, as bombshell study after study reported the chemical, which is used to harden polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, could seep into humans as they broke down. Used since the 1960s, the chemical is found in everything from plastic food storage containers to helmets to dental sealants to water bottles—products with high usage across all demographics, including children. BPA can seamlessly enter our bodies because it’s cloaked in a chemical disguise that makes it similar to estrogen. That means genes that respond to estrogen respond to BPA instead, disrupting the endocrine system and wreaking havoc in the regulation of hormones.
Getting even a minute trace of BPA into the bloodstream isn’t pretty: Once in the bloodstream, it can lead to a host of serious health issues, including affecting the prostate gland of fetuses, increased risk of high blood pressure, and hyperactivity. BPA has been connected to other, more serious diseases as well, ranging from prostate cancer and heart disease to fundamental disruptions in the endocrine system and genetic expression, according to a database of BPA studies the NIEHS maintains.
Because of their dangerous side effects, children and pregnant women have been especially warned against using products that contain BPA. But health agencies have been slow to react to BPA outside warning Americans to be careful of exposing themselves to products. In fact, a 2008 report from the National Toxicology Program found “minimal concern” for “females, infants, and children” exposed to BPA in mammary glands (i.e., breast milk), and “negligible concern” for pregnant women and those who might be exposed to BPA in their workplace. Meanwhile, there was “some concern” about how BPA affected “brain, behavior, and prostate gland development in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures.”
That leads to the latest study on BPA, which suggests that the effects are showing up in a majority of teens (who probably went through the first wave of BPA health warnings) and can lay latent until symptoms of more serious diseases show up later in life. On average, the participants in the study—students in six southwest England aged between 17 and 19 years old—had 1.22 ng/mL of BPA in their urine. The students were part of a public health initiative designed to see if tracking diet would help them identify sources of BPA, particularly around plastic food storage containers. The researchers not only found that 86 percent of the students showed signs of BPA in their urine, but—troublingly—that it was nearly impossible to avoid BPA in daily life due to poor labeling: “We found no evidence in this self-administered intervention study that it was possible to moderate BPA exposure by diet in a real-world setting.”
What's even more worrisome is the sheer prevalence of products that contain BPA in everyday life, despite regulations not only in the United States but across the world. As the study—from researchers at England's University of Exeter—points out, the European Food Safety Authority has investigated the health effects of BPA. Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration has not outright banned the use of BPA but warned in the 2008 National Toxicology Report that it had “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures,” along with a 108-page report that outlined the negative health effects of BPA.
What’s more, alternatives aren’t exactly a safe bet. The public outcry over BPA had the plastics industry scrambling to create alternate products that were BPA-free yet helped harden plastics the way BPA did, but some early research indicated that these BPA-replacements had the ability to induce estrogenic activity, including baby bottles and sippy cups, that “stressed” they were BPA-free and used resins like polysterene and Tritan™ instead.
So what makes sense from a consumer front—avoiding products that explicitly say they are free of BPA—isn’t necessarily a safe strategy, and it’s one that the researchers themselves ran into while working with the 94 teens, who reported that they had a hard time outright avoiding products that contained BPA.
“We found no evidence in this self-administered intervention study that it was possible to moderate BPA exposure by diet in a real-world setting,” the authors noted. “Furthermore, our study participants indicated that they would be unlikely to sustain such a diet long term, due to the difficulty in identifying BPA-free foods.”
The study has its limits: It focuses on fewer than 100 British teenagers in a specific region in England, and the students self-reported their own dietary restrictions.
But the study highlights two things. First, it’s nearly impossible to avoid BPA in our food packaging. Second, “safe” substitutes aren’t necessarily safe. Better labeling might help, but what will ultimately make for less dismal statistics are outright bans of BPA and better-tested substitutes of plastic hardeners—or better yet, avoiding them altogether with equally effective, affordable, accessible options—that don’t make BPA the unavoidable health threat it has become.