All you need to know about Bisphenol A

BPA basics

We hear about Bisphenol-A (BPA) from many sources. Whether in TV news reports, newspaper columns, or social media, one is never far away from a fixed opinion about BPA.

But, what actually is BPA? And more importantly: what is its impact on human health?

What and why: Understanding concerns about BPA

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical substance that is used as one ingredient to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. These applications have helped the development and enhancement of many items we consider essential to modern day life.

As its use in daily applications has expanded, many allegations have been made about the health impacts on consumers from exposure to BPA.

Sources of exposure

Based on its current use, for the average consumer, there are two primary possibilities for exposure to BPA: via the food and beverage that you consume (“oral exposure”) or through the skin when touching a product made with a BPA-based material (“dermal exposure”).

Risks from exposure

Just because you are exposed to a substance does not mean that the substance is necessarily bad. For example, when you eat an apple, you also ingest amylose, but most people are not worried about that it or the dozens of other substances present in an apple. Similarly, you may ingest some BPA, but that does not mean that BPA is bad.

Nonetheless, during the past decades, many researchers have attempted to link BPA exposure to a large list of health issues such as gluten intolerance, obesity, infertility, autism, cancer, cardiovascular diseases (diabetes, hypertension), and neurobehavioural disorders. And, it is not only negative outcomes that researchers have attempted to link with BPA; one study found that BPA weakens the flu virus in women. Taking it all into account, one comes to wonder: how is it possible that a single organic chemical substance seems to be linked to so many different health issues?

The truth is that none of these studies tell us much about BPA because many of these studies are conducted in petri-dishes (a cell-culture dish) or using animal models or through population studies that confuse correlation and causation. According to researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, studies of BPA in humans have found that the body’s systems inactivate 998 out of every 1000 BPA molecules by the time BPA entered the bloodstream. Furthermore, studies such as the one conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have demonstrated that even babies and children, safely and naturally inactivate and excrete BPA. Indeed, the researchers looked at BPA traces in newborn babies’ urine… and found none: the babies had excreted ‘free BPA’ particles when peeing. The human body is good at doing what it is meant to do, and that means understanding the impact of BPA on human health requires more than one exploratory study.

BPA and the endocrine system

Many who believe in the adverse health effects of BPA believe that BPA would interfere in hormonal systems. However, BPA is not an endocrine disruptor according to the World Health Organisation definition. It is rather endocrine active, like organic and synthetic substances, such as carrots, soy beans or coffee.

What does the science say about BPA?

Regarding BPA-based products, international regulatory bodies and scientific food and health safety agencies have concluded again and again that the use of BPA is safe and does not pose any health risk to the population.

Close to home, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the German Society for Toxicology, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, the Irish Food Safety Authority, and the  Swiss Federal Council have all concluded that BPA does not pose risks to the consumer.

Beyond Europe, the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) , and the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, have similarly emphasized their findings that BPA does not pose a health risk to consumers in food contact applications.

What international health agencies say:

European Food and Safety Agency

  • “The highest estimates for aggregated exposure to BPA from both dietary and non-dietary sources are 3 to 5 times lower than the TDI, depending on the age group.” [EFSA fact sheet, January 2015]
  • “BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group at current exposure levels” [EFSA press release, January 2015]

World Health Organization (WHO)

  • “Levels of BPA in the human body are very low, indicating that BPA is not accumulated in the body and is rapidly eliminated.” [November 2010]

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

  • “[…] the scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe.” [March 2012]
  • “An adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure from food contact uses, for infants and adults” [January 2010]
  • “BPA is safe at the current levels occuring in food” [FDA website 2015]

German Society for Toxicology

  • “The current Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) level for BPA is adequately justified.” [April 2011]

Swiss Health Authority

  • “… the ingestion of BPA via food does not present a risk to consumers” [June 2011]

What does the future hold?

It is important for consumers to understand the potential environmental and health impacts of the products they use, so there will be many more studies on BPA. But, the next headline you read may cause more confusion, if it claims to have found a new danger about BPA. As with any other issue, some studies more consistent and reliable than others. In any case, it is important to be critical regarding their relevance and accuracy.

This is what you can ask yourself when reading a news report about BPA:

  • What is the difference between a hazard and a risk? Where does BPA stand? Why is the difference important for regulatory purposes?[1]
  • To what extent can results based on experiments on mice / sampled animals can be extrapolated to humans?
  • What levels of BPA are people actually exposed to? How relevant are the doses of BPA used in the study?
  • If the study is based on population data, are the statistical tests reasonable and well-constructed? Are the correlations strong enough, and linked to a plausible cause?

The science today confirms BPA’s safety at current exposure levels. It is therefore important to focus on real threats: trying to solve problems that do not exist will only distract, and take time and money from taxpayers and governments who could use the latter to actually help improve citizens’ health. Because in the end: Your health is your wealth.

[1] To help you on that one you can have a look at this video.

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