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Most people have heard of bisphenol-A, also known as BPA, and the health problems it can cause. Even plastics that are free of BPA, however, can still cause serious health problems.

Bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA, is a problem chemical that is used to make plastics and the epoxy "glues" that coat cans. Until very recently, North American manufacturers used over two billion pounds (850 million kilos) of BPA every year to make plastic bottles, "tin" cans, flame retardant fabrics, sports equipment, dental fillings, and even implantable medical devices such as artificial hips. Because BPA is used to make food containers, there is BPA in most canned foods and bottled drinks. 

There is so much BPA in the North American environment that nearly 90 percent of North Americans excrete BPA in their urine, and the problem has gone worldwide.  

What's the downside to BPA?

In children, BPA levels are associated with attention deficit disorder. Because BPA interact with receptors on the surfaces of cells in much the same way as estrogen, it may interfere with sexual maturation of boys and girls, delaying puberty in boys and accelerating puberty in girls, and it may lower sperm counts in adult men. BPA has been associated with increased rates of asthma, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, obesity, and infertility, all diseases that have become much more common since the chemical has been used on a wide scale. 

Is BPA really dangerous?

The US Food and Drug Administration still insists that BPA isn't really a problem chemical. If you access the material safety data sheet for BPA (actually for its most common form, bisphenol A dimethacrylate, there's "no information available" for the concentration of the chemical that is potentially toxic or lethal, and no information about potential problems from long-term exposure. State regulatory agencies tend to ignore BPA, too. Even California's Proposition 65, which regulates many of the substances found in consumer products, has nothing to say about BPA.

That doesn't mean that experts believe BPA is safe. The Endocrine Society, for example, issued a statement that the FDA had simply ignored important research regarding the safety of the chemical.

The Endocrine Society points to a study that has found that more baby boys are being born with small penises, and men are suffering from shrinking testicles. The Society also points to reports of girls beginning menstruation as early as the age of six.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that exposure to BPA at plastic plants is a common cause of erectile dysfunction (ED). Studies of animals find that exposure to BPA reduces the brain's sensitivity to dopamine, so that more food and more sex are needed for the same sense of satisfaction. There is evidence that BPA can interfere with the action of thyroid hormone, but not so much that people get treatment. They simply have a mild, subclinical form of hypothyroidism that makes them prone to gain weight. In animals, exposure to BPA results in feminine behaviors in adult males, as well as weight gain in female patterns (larger breasts and hips).

There's little doubt that we need to reduce exposure to BPA, at least among scientists. However, that doesn't mean that BPA-free plastics aren't also problematic.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Qiu W, Zhao Y, Yang M, Farajzadeh M, Pan C, Wayne NL. Actions of Bisphenol A and Bisphenol S on the Reproductive Neuroendocrine System During Early Development in Zebrafish. Endocrinology. 2016 Feb.157(2):636-47. doi: 10.1210/en.2015-1785. Epub 2015 Dec 10. PMID: 26653335.
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