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BPA: Confused about bisphenol A? Here's why

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
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June 09, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Does BPA, which is used to make items such as water bottles and food cans, pose a risk to human health? And what should regulators do about it? A series of articles shows why it's hard to know for sure.
Does BPA, which is used to make items such as water bottles and food cans,… (David McNew / Getty Images )

Bisphenol-A, also known as BPA, is often used to make clear, hard plastics and to line cans containing food.  It can mimic estrogen in the human body, and has been associated with adverse health effects such as reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of cancer and diabetes.  

In many places, the substance has been banned in baby bottles and other containers.  Reports about the risks it poses usually garner a lot of attention.  But regulators have been slow to knock BPA use.  The Food and Drug Administration has called for further study of BPA, but has not banned the substance. The World Health Organization issued a report last year urging public health officials to hold off on regulations banning or limiting BPA use.

Confused? Unsure how to mitigate the potential risks?  You're not alone -- and if you're interested in exploring your puzzlement further, you might want to look at this series of articles in the American Chemical Society's Chemical & Engineering News.  

One major problem with assessing the danger posed by BPA, writes reporter Stephen K. Ritter, is that activists, scientists and regulators can't seem to agree on what the safety data show.  While some have interpreted the numbers to show that humans probably get a dose of the chemical similar to those that have been shown to harm animals -- and have called for steep curbs on BPA use -- others cite inconsistencies in the findings and instead urge caution.  

Consumer advocates watch a debate like this and invoke the precautionary principle -- we should sharply curb our use of this stuff in order to limit even potential harm.  Industry groups, in response, point out that banning a widely used chemical on scant evidence might mean taking a safe and useful product off the market at great expense.  Both camps make a lot of noise, regulators take a middle path, and regular folks remain puzzled.

Another problem?  People are exposed to BPA (not to mention other "endocrine disrupters") in a variety of ways -- not just from food containers.  Banning BPA in food packaging may not do much good if you're just going to get exposed to tons of the stuff through cash-register receipts or currency.  

A third dilemma?  Chemists haven't found good substitutes for BPA.  Many touted alternatives "can still display estrogenic activity," Ritter wrote.  Many are also very expensive.

If you want to (try to) play it safe while the scientists and politicians sort all of this out, cutting back on canned foods might make a dent in your family's BPA exposure, a recent study suggested.   

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