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What’s the deal with BPA?

November 22, 2010

I bought my first Nalgene water bottle in 2004, a red narrow-mouth 1 litre.  However, it wasn’t until I got my purple narrow-mouth 500 mL in 2005 that I fell in love.  The big one was good for hiking, but the little one was perfect for taking everywhere (I tend to get headaches if I don’t drink frequently enough.) But then sometime in 2007 or 2008 bisphenol A (also known as BPA) started making news headlines.  It was in my Nalgene, it was bad for me, and I should replace my bottle.  But I chose to believe Nalgene and their statement that their bottles were safe, delaying replacing them until 2009, and even then I wasn’t entirely convinced that I needed to.

So what the heck is BPA and why was it in my water bottles, anyway?

I was under the impression that BPA was something in the plastic of the bottle. But as it turns out, the bottle is BPA.  Polycarbonate, the hard, shatter-resistant, heat-resistant and see-through plastic those bottles are made of is almost 100% BPA.  Polycarbonate is found in many other applications as well– those big blue water-cooler water bottles, the reusable plastic cutlery I take on camping trips, eyeglass lenses, CDs and DVDs, cell phones, computer screens, car headlights …

And so what’s the problem with BPA?

Bisphenol A was discovered to have estrogen-mimicking properties way back in the 1930s.  Yet manufacturers ignored this.   Perhaps it was assumed that BPA would stay bound in the plastic, or that low level-transfer of it wouldn’t be a problem.  However, the thing about hormones such as estrogen is that our bodies react to them at extremely low levels.   And reactions to extremely low levels of BPA has been show in studies involving mice (many of which started by accident when BPA started leaching out of the mice’s water bottles.)  Industry and governments continue to downplay these studies, however, and continue to insist that it is safe in most uses.  Yet scientists have discovered links between BPA and breast cancer, prostate cancer, infertility, learning disabilities, and type-2 diabetes— scary stuff!

And yes, BPA does leach out of your water bottle.  Although Nalgene claims otherwise, a Harvard study showed a clear increase in urinary BPA concentrations in college studies drinking cold beverages out of a polycarbonate bottle.  A 2007-2009 Canadian Health Measures survey found bisphenol A in 91% of Canadians tested.

However, polycarbonate is not your only source of BPA pollution.  A second use of BPA is in epoxy resins, which are used to line food and beverage containers.  Open a can of beans or tomato paste and you’ll notice the inside of the can has a white coating.  It’s meant to prevent substances from migrating from the metal can to your food, but a study led by the Environmental Working Group found that the BPA migrates into the food.   Beverage cans are also lined with BPA-containing resin, and a Health Canada study found BPA in 69 of 72 varieties of soft drinks tested.

Other sources of BPA include the ink used in newsprint (and since newspaper is recycled, BPA is also present in recycled paper products– such as pizza boxes), the thermal paper used for receipts, and dental fillings.

So what should you do?

  • If you haven’t already done so, replace any polycarbonate food and beverage containers and utensils.  Polycarbonate falls under plastic number 7, however, not all number 7 plastics are polycarbonate– it’s a catch-all grouping for any plastics that don’t fit into the other 6 plastic categories.  If the 7 has “PC” underneath, that’s a dead giveaway.  If it has any other letters, or specifically says “BPA free,” then you should be safe.
  • Eat fewer canned foods and drink fewer canned beverages.  I’ve switched to using frozen corn, dried beans, and jarred spaghetti sauce.  However, since I know it is impossible to avoid all sources of BPA entirely (it’s even found its way into water),  I still have a can of black beans in the cupboard in case I just don’t have time, and still use canned tomatoes and paste on occasion, and still eat canned salmon.  No one’s perfect.  Jar lids do contain BPA, but it has less contact with the food.
  • If you drink alcohol, choose bottles over cans– and be aware that wine is often aged in BPA-resin-lined casks.
  • If you don’t need your receipt, don’t take it.
  • If you are getting dental work, ask about BPA-free alternatives– they are available.
  • Don’t lick your headlights.  Or your computer screen. 😉 Or perhaps wash your hands between reading the newspaper and eating a sandwich.

Despite all the denial, progress is being made.    Just last month Canada was the first country to declare BPA toxic. Some companies, like Eden Foods, have used BPA-free resins to line their cans for many years and now others are moving to follow suite.  Contact companies about the brands that you use and ask about their BPA-usage.  Unfortunately, not all BPA-containing linings are detectable just by looking in the can, but the more concerned consumers that contact them, the more likely a company is to make a change.

My main source of information for this article was the excellent book, Slow Death By Rubber Duck: How The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, which I highly recommend.  I will be drawing on it frequently in future posts.

Are you concerned about BPA?  Have you taken steps to reduce your exposure?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Val McWhirter permalink
    November 22, 2010 12:28 pm

    Thanks Jillian! I was concerned a few summers back when it first really came out in the news and I quickly got rid of my Nalgene water bottles and replaced them with metal (but now I need to look and see if they have linings…). But since then the media attention has diminished and I really hadn’t thought about it again until I read your blog! I now definitely want to look into the products that I use regularly and find out what has BPA in it and find some good alternatives (you gave me a good starting point!) and Slow Death By Rubber Duck is in my pile of books to read, so a step in the right direction. Thanks for bring this back to the surface:)

    • November 22, 2010 12:48 pm

      Thanks Val! Stainless steel bottles shouldn’t have liners, but aluminium ones do, which may contain BPA– you’d have to consult the company. SIGG claimed their bottles were BPA-free but it turns out that until Aug 2008 their liners did contain BPA.

  2. Carrie permalink
    November 22, 2010 1:13 pm

    Awesome post! I always found the content I read when it first came out overly concerned about plastic water bottles but not enough about BPA in general. Did you come across any info regarding other plastic having an effect upon health? I learned a lot from your post (rethinking water from coolers and eating toast while reading the paper in the morning – perhaps I’ll have to start using utensils to eat instead of my hands as I really enjoy the newspaper). I like your simple suggestions too as they feel like something I could probably manage. I hope to read your book suggestion one day, once I get through required school readings. I look forward to more!

    • November 23, 2010 11:54 am

      Yes, several kinds of plastic (specially #3- PVC and #6- polystyrene) aren’t good for you, as well as a group of plasticizers called phthalates (found in PVC but also many other things.) I’ll be blogging about them soon!

      It’s probably likely that we absorb BPA through our skin when handling newsprint, but I’m not ready to start wearing gloves while reading the paper! You can find BPA-free 5-gallon bottles if you have any say over where your water cooler bottles come from.

  3. November 25, 2010 2:58 pm

    Great post Jillian. I still use canned tomaotes; I can’t see any alternative to those, unless my tomatoes had actually grown this past summer and I could have canned them myself. Since that didn’t happen, I have to use canned or go without. But I love tomatoes.

    I don’t use my Nalgenes anymore. I want to recycle them (I have about 5-6), but I don’t want to donate them (because if they are bad for me, they are bad for everyone) and I don’t know if they can be recycled. Any idea?

    I was just about to lick my computer screen, but I stopped myself. Thanks!

    • November 25, 2010 7:36 pm

      Thanks, Katie!

      Plastics accepted vary from place to place, # 7 is probably the most troublesome category, as often it means the product is made of a combination of plastics. Nalgenes are pure polycarbonate, though. So if a place claims to accept #7 then they probably will actually recycle a water bottle. (Take off the lids if you can.) You’ll have to check with your local municipality.

      Throwing them away isn’t a good idea, because the BPA can leach out and into the water supply.

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