Many Americans, including a high number living in low-income communities, have come to rely on canned tomato sauces, soups, and vegetables to expedite their meal preparations. Yet a new study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reveals that the canned food items on your dinner plate are over 90 percent likely to be tainted with Bisphenol-A (BPA), a primary chemical used in the lining of cans. (For more information on BPA, check out Civil Eats’ previous reporting here, here, here, and here.)
These findings are notable because they underline the fact that BPA levels in cans are variable depending on the type of food, or even within batches of the same food item. This is the FDA’s largest study to date across a wide spectrum of commonly consumed canned food items, including soups, chilis, pasta and pork and beans–foods often consumed by children, who have a heightened risk of exposure due to their body size.
This is not the first time such findings have been made public. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, found similar results (though at three times lower levels than the FDA findings) in a 2009 study, noting that the daily safety threshold set by the FDA of 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight was based on outdated studies often funded by the American Plastics Council, an industry group.
Consumers Union went on to suggest limiting daily exposure to one-thousandth of that level. “Consumers have no idea how much BPA they may be exposed to from any given can,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Technical Policy at Consumers Union. “As we previously reported, just a few servings of some of these foods can expose consumers to levels of BPA that have caused harm in animal studies. We believe this is an unacceptable margin of safety and that consumers should not have to ingest BPA.”
The scientists from the FDA did not go on to interpret the data in this new study or make any new recommendations about the agency’s safety threshold for the chemical.
Our chemical body burden
The Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated that 93 percent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Other studies have concluded that BPA is a “gender-bending” chemical that messes with our hormones, as well as increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and hyperactivity in children. In addition, studies have found that it lowers sperm count in workers at the facilities where BPA is in use.
Chemicals enter our food system in many ways, including being used as additives in our food to change its flavor or color, moving into the food from its packaging, and through the use of pesticides on farm fields. In fact there are 80,000 different types of chemicals in use today, seven percent of which have been tested for safety by our government.
BPA is one of the more ubiquitous chemicals, found on cash register receipts, in dental fillings, and in certain types of plastics, in addition to aluminum cans. Given its ability to migrate, each of us is being exposed by various sources on a daily basis, and how this kind of multiple-point exposure adds up has yet to be studied.
Getting it out of our system
Eating a diet of whole foods is one of the best ways to clear BPA and other chemicals out of our system. But not everyone has access to these foods, and just handling the receipt on your next shopping trip can expose you (and not to mention the cashier).
In the U.S., chemicals must be proven to cause harm before they are removed from the market. Yet often exposure adds up over time, which could be resulting in chronic conditions that are difficult to quantify, making it particularly hard to ban a chemical. Advocates believe that stronger public policy is necessary to lower the risk and eliminate unwanted exposure to the chemical.
While Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) championed legislation to ban BPA altogether in the Senate last year, there has yet to be a bill that passes either the House or Senate on this issue. Meanwhile, BPA in children’s products has been banned in nine states, including Maine, Minnesota and Connecticut, as well as in the European Union, Canada and most recently, China is moving to ban the chemical. Similar BPA-ban legislation is pending in 12 other states, including California, which passed legislation in the State Senate on Monday.
Some companies are responding to the public’s concern over BPA by preemptively removing it from their baby bottles and other products. The grocery chain Kroger recently announced it would be removing BPA from the store’s brand of canned food items as well as cash register receipts. But as a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times reminded us, as companies react to public outcry by changing their formulas, they might be replacing it with similarly harmful chemicals without as much name recognition.
The fact that such a study was conducted by the FDA serves as part of a shifting strategy for the agency on BPA. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2009, lobbyists for the chemical industry have historically played an active role in FDA policy making and managing public opinion of the chemical. Yet last year, the agency admitted that the chemical was not entirely safe in food contact applications, and that it supports stronger regulations and oversight.
In 2008, the agency drafted an updated assessment of the chemical which included some concern over its safety. A subcommittee reviewed the draft and refuted these findings. Two and a half years later, this internal disagreement has left a finalized assessment to gather dust on a desk somewhere at the FDA. Meanwhile, the general public continues to be exposed to a soup of chemicals, including BPA, in variable and uncontrolled doses.
As with genetically modified foods and now, antibiotics, perhaps there will soon be a lawsuit filed against the FDA to force it to better regulate BPA and the chemicals in line to replace it.
Photo: stevendepolo via Flickr