It is well-known that our bodies are burdened with an ever-increasing chemical load, but a new study is the first to nail down a direct link between human levels of Bisphenol-A, otherwise known as BPA, and canned foods. Research published in the journal Environmental Research (1) not only reveals the immediate effect of canned food consumption on our BPA levels but pinpoints the worst offenders.
This study supports prior studies that point to canned food as one of the most significant routes of BPA exposure. The new study involved measuring the BPA levels of 7,669 US citizens, age six and older, before and after consuming canned foods.
BPA exits the body primarily through urine and sweat. It is difficult to measure BPA in the blood, but the chemical is concentrated in urine making it a superior barometer for exposure. The researchers found: (2)
People who consumed one canned food item in the past day had about 24 percent higher concentrations of BPA in their urine compared with those who had not consumed canned food. The consumption of two or more canned food items resulted in about 54 percent higher concentrations of BPA the next day.
This study echoes a 2011 study in which people who ate canned soup daily for five days demonstrated a greater than 1,000 percent increase in urinary BPA. (3)
The type of canned food consumed makes a difference. Canned vegetables or fruit resulted in 41 percent higher concentrations in BPA, and canned pasta caused a 70 percent increase—but soup took the cake with a whopping 229 percent increase. Researchers postulate this may have something to do with how much thermal processing canned soup has to undergo, and it typically contains more fat. BPA is lipophilic. Just as BPA dissolves into the fat in your soup, any BPA your body can’t eliminate makes its way into your body fat. With two of every three canned foods being positive for BPA, continuous biological exposure is a concern.
BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), meaning it interferes with your body’s normal hormone signaling, and this can lead to a plethora of adverse effects ranging from reproductive abnormalities to behavioral disorders, cardiac problems and brain damage.
The global canned food market was worth more than $77 billion in 2013 and is expected to reach nearly $100 billion by 2020. As plastic products accumulate in landfills, BPA levels are rising in our lakes, rivers, oceans and soils. Environmental risk assessment studies near population centers have found BPA concentrations nearing LOEL, or “Lowest Observed Effect Levels.” (4)
Canned foods are only one source of BPA, albeit a major one, and it’s important to remember exposure is cumulative. BPA is still found in water bottles and food-storage containers, plastic tableware, contact lenses and eyeglass lenses, compact discs, toys, water-supply pipes, dental sealants and composites, medical devices (including some urinary catheters and IV tubing), personal care products, and paper products including mailing envelopes, airplane boarding passes and thermal receipts. There are far too many sources to list.
Health Risks of BPA are Piling Up
Why should you be concerned about how much BPA you’re peeing off after eating a can of soup? Doesn’t the fact that it’s coming out in our urine mean it’s being flushed out of our bodies? Yes and no.
In a perfect world, the body would be capable of completely detoxifying itself, but in many cases the world’s toxic offenders have exceeded our built-in detox mechanisms–basically, we’re on overload. The observed estrogenic effects are solid evidence our bodies are not able to keep up. Much of the evidence for BPA toxicity is based on animal studies (more than 1,000 to date), where very low BPA exposures during pregnancy or early life can permanently affect fertility, behavior and body size, as well as predisposing animals to cancers later in life. (5) Studies now show many petrochemicals, including BPA, are measurable in human umbilical cord blood, indicating universal prenatal exposure to these agents.
There is monumental scientific data suggesting BPA wreaks havoc with your body on multiple fronts. BPA is shown to mimic thyroid and sex hormones in both humans and animals, which results in a wide variety of health problems, including the following:
- Early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles, ovarian toxicity and infertility; increased prostate size, decreased sperm production, hypospadias (penis deformation), erectile dysfunction, and stimulation of prostate cancer cells (6)
- Preterm birth (7)
- Structural damage to the brain
- Changes in gender-specific behavior and abnormal sexual behavior
- Hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness and learning impairment
- Breast cancer (8)
- High blood pressure and heart disease (9)
- Liver tumors (10)
- Increased fat formation, increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes (11)
- Altered immune function
Most Westerners have BPA in their blood, typically in the range of one part per billion (ppb). This might seem too miniscule an amount to cause problems but endocrine disruptors such as BPA don’t play by the rules. Many even produce biological effects in the parts per trillion (ppt) range. According to many experts, extremely low concentrations of BPA can profoundly affect developing eggs and sperm—levels in the realm of current human exposure.
While world regulators quibble over what is a “safe BPA dose,” the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes daily exposure should not exceed 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. (12) I would argue there is really no evidence in support of a “safe dose.”
While it is not clear how much exposure is harmful to humans, the existing evidence suggests the developing fetus and young child are most at risk. Infants and children cannot metabolize and excrete BPA as quickly and efficiently as adults. Unfortunately, BPA can now be measured in the urine of most infants—in a 2014 study, it was detected in 93 percent of healthy infants, age three to 15 months. (13)
As children mature, they are exposed to these chemicals on a fairly continuous basis. A 2015 study by Stanford University researchers found that typical school lunches may be exposing children to potentially toxic levels of BPA. (14) According to a joint report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) EDCs may need to be banned across the board to protect the health of future generations. (15)
BPA-Free Labels Provide False Sense of Security
As a result of growing public awareness about the risks of BPA, you’ve probably seen the term “BPA-free” on a product label or two. The problem is BPA-free does not necessarily mean chemical-free. Many companies are simply swapping out BPA for other plastic chemicals. Many of these agents are similar to BPA and have been shown to produce the same biological effects. Therefore, the BPA-free label may give consumers a false sense of security. Take BPA-free sippy cups, for example.
The Center for Environmental Health embarked on a two-year mission to determine if BPA-free sippy cups pose any risk for children. Of the 35 “BPA-free” cups tested, nine were found to produce significant amounts of estrogenic activity, and seven showed even higher estrogenic activity than cups made with BPA. (16, 17) Why would this be?
The most common BPA substitute is BPS (bisphenol-S), and this EDC has been scientifically shown to have strong estrogenic effects.
Researchers at the University of Texas discovered that, in rats, even minute concentrations of BPS—less than one part per trillion—can disrupt cellular functioning and cause altered cell proliferation, cell death and abnormal hormone release. (18) French researchers studying the effects of BPA and BPS on zebrafish embryos found that fish exposed to BPS in a similar concentration to water from a nearby stream experienced “explosive neuronal growth leading to hyperactive and erratic behavior.” Both BPA and BPS were also found to disrupt thyroid systems. (19, 20) In yet another study, BPS was found even more potent than BPA in causing fat accumulation. (21)
BPA and BPS are not the only agents to be concerned about, and lawsuits are emerging in the wake of damage left by these toxic chemicals. Problematic BPA replacements include PLA, ABS, SAN, polystyrene, polypropylene, low-density and high-density polyethylene, PVC, PET and others, all possessing evidence-based risks. (22) Even Styrofoam cups may not be safe, with the National Research Council pronouncing styrene “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” (23)
Bottom line: You are better off avoiding plastics altogether than relying on products claiming to be “BPA-free.”
Eight Great Strategies for Reducing Your BPA Exposure
The new BPA study confirms the findings in prior studies: BPA does indeed make its way into canned food, and then into your body when you consume it. The more heated, processed and acidic a canned food is, the higher you can expect the contamination to be. Although eliminating all exposure is impossible, you can avoid a large chunk of it by keeping the following strategies in mind.
Additionally, the Environmental Working Group has a searchable database of brands that use BPA versus brands claiming to be “BPA-free.” (24) Just remember that BPA-free does not necessarily mean chemical-free, so fresh unprocessed foods are always your best option.
- Eat In: Studies show people who eat more meals prepared outside the home have higher BPA levels. To reduce your toxicity, consider cooking more meals at home with fresh ingredients. When you do eat out, choose restaurants that focus on fresh whole foods, preferably locally sourced.
- Food Storage: Store your food and beverages in glass, stainless steel or food-safe ceramic, rather than plastic. Avoid using plastic wrap. When purchasing prepared foods, opt for those that come in glass, especially acidic foods such as tomatoes that promote more chemical leaching. Look for products made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free. Bionaturae offers organic tomato products in glass jars.
- Water Bottles: When it comes to coffee, tea or water on the go, opt for glass.
- Microwaving: Warmer temperatures increase the rate of chemical leaching. Therefore, use heat-resistant glass or ceramic containers when you microwave or heat your food on the stove. The term “microwave safe” means safety for the container, not your health.
- Brewing: Automatic coffee makers may have BPA in their plastic containers and tubing. Consider using a French press or Chemex system for brewing coffee.
- Cash Register Receipts: Avoid handling cash register receipts, which are coated with BPA plastic. Swiss scientists discovered BPA transfers readily from receipts to skin, and can penetrate skin to a depth such that it can’t be washed off. (25) Many places have started offering electronic receipts.
- Babies and Children: Breastfeed your baby exclusively, if possible, for at least the first year to avoid EDC exposure from infant formula, plastic bottles and nipples. If bottle feeding, use glass bottles. Choose toys made from natural materials. Teach your children to never drink water from the garden hose.
- Detoxification: Perform regular detoxification. Far-Infrared (FIR) sauna may be the best way to remove BPA as it comes out in sweat. (26) According to one (unverifiable) source, FIR sauna can flush out 90 percent of the BPA from your body within 30 days. Get plenty of vigorous exercise and drink plenty of water daily. Iodine supplementation may also be helpful.