Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial grade chemical used in epoxy resins, hard clear plastics and the protective lining of some food and beverage cans. The theory is that the BPA makes the products safer and easier to use, while in fact the chemical has demonstrated significant side effects that damage your health.
Although it was first discovered in the 1890s, it wasn't until the 1950s that chemists found it could be added to polycarbonate plastics to make them stronger and more resilient.1
Although exposure to BPA has demonstrable effects on the brain, behavior, increased blood pressure2 and fetal and infant development, the FDA continues to say it is safe in low doses.3
Unfortunately, as BPA is found in multiple products in your home, such as food containers, baby toys, plastic bottles and containers, acquiring only "very low" doses may be a challenge.
Added to which, being labeled BPA-free does not necessarily mean the product does not release BPA or substitute endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to strengthen plastics.
Does 'BPA-Free' Mean Your Baby's Toy Is Devoid of BPA?
Although plastics appear to be inert, taking many years to decay or erode, they are in fact leaching chemicals into your environment every day.
A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found products claiming to have estrogenic-activity free plastics still leached chemicals with estrogenic activity into food products when placed under common stresses.4
In a more recent study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers investigated whether BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be leaching from teethers — toys babies use to soothe their gums as their teeth are erupting.5
As a result of studies demonstrating endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA trigger diseases in humans and animals, the European Union restricted their use in baby bottles.
The U.S. followed in 2012, restricting use in baby bottles and toddler sippy cups. However, few studies have evaluated teething toys used by infants and the potential for endocrine-disrupting chemicals leaching from these products.
The researchers evaluated 59 different teething toys purchased online in the U.S. and found that although most were labeled BPA-free or non-toxic, all contained BPA, along with a range of different parabens and antimicrobials such as triclosan,6 and these chemicals were in fact leaching out of the product.
The plastics industry has claimed the amount of chemicals used in infant and child products does not pose a health risk to children.
However, according to lead researcher Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., scientist at the New York State Department of Health, recent studies suggest that just a nanogram (ng) level may be harmful to your child's health.7
Controversy Fueled by Industry-Funded Research
To simulate use, researchers immersed the plastic teething toys in water for an hour and then measured the amount of chemicals that leached into the water.
However, water is much less corrosive than enzyme-filled saliva, so the amount of chemicals measured could be very conservative. Parabens were the most commonly leached chemical in this part of the study.8
Kannan noted that the levels measured from one hour of soaking in water were lower than current limits set for other products. However, these limits were not specifically set for babies and could not account for the accumulation of chemicals in a baby's body from exposure to several products.9
Although use of BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been restricted in Europe, China and Canada, there continues to be an argument in the U.S. over whether exposure to these chemicals is dangerous enough to warrant restricting use and cutting industry profits.
The FDA continues to assure the public that current levels of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe,10 citing their 2014 report using research from 2009 to July 2013.11
However, research in rodents, published within their review dates, demonstrate that even low-dose exposures have a negative effect, and levels similar to humans in rhesus monkeys have a negative effect on reproduction.12
The differences between study results may be explained by a review of the literature, which found every industry-funded study to that point had found no negative health effects of BPA on humans, while 92 percent of studies not funded by the industry did find negative health effects.13
Early Exposure Is Serious Business
Early life exposure to any chemical or toxin dangerous to human health is even more serious in infants and children. Since a child's body is not fully developed, chemicals have a greater potential for impacting their neurological, digestive and immune systems.
While Kannan hopes these new findings may guide regulation guidelines to protect young children, it is interesting to note the move to restrict BPA in children's bottles and sippy cups in 2012 was reportedly since the chemical was no longer necessary as an additive.14 Kannan commented:15
"Putting this cocktail of chemicals, even in low amounts, during critical stages of development of many organs, can have an effect in many stages of life.
That's why we're concerned about it — the early-life exposure and epigenetic changes that results from the EDCs [endocrine-disrupting chemicals] can contribute to some of the disease and development of some of these diseases later in life. We should have policies limiting exposure."
The earliest exposure happens prior to birth. One study found that women with high exposure to BPA had higher rates of miscarriage.16 Studies of women undertaking fertility procedures to achieve pregnancy revealed higher levels of BPA resulted in proportionally lower egg production.17,18
Research also demonstrates that men with higher levels of BPA experience lower sperm concentration and low sperm count.19 Occupational exposure in men also appeared to result in lower satisfaction with their sex life and increased difficulty achieving an erection.20
Many studies have also demonstrated that babies born to women exposed to BPA at work weigh up to a half-pound less than those born to women who were not exposed at work.21
Low birth weight increases the risks of birth defects, infections and long-term chronic health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart, lung and kidney problems.22
Effects of Endocrine Disruptors
BPA and the common replacement chemicals bisphenol S and bisphenol F are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that wreak havoc on both children and adults.
As the name implies, these chemicals have the ability to disrupt your endocrine system, which produces and secretes hormones that affect almost every cell, organ and function in your body.
Hormones are instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function and metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes. BPA has been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly in pregnant women, fetuses and young children, but also in adults, including:
Structural damage to your brain
Changes in gender-specific behavior, and abnormal sexual behavior
Hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness and impaired learning
Early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles, ovarian dysfunction and infertility23
Increased fat formation and risk of obesity and diabetes
Stimulation of prostate cancer cells
Altered immune function
Increased prostate size and decreased sperm production24
Increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease25
Reduced efficacy of chemotherapy treatment28
Healthier Options for Your Family
Although canned goods and baby toys are a significant source of BPA and other EDCs for your family, they are not the only ones. In this short news video Dr. David Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California, describes where you'll find BPA on your grocery store shelves. You may limit your exposure by keeping the following guidelines in mind when shopping for baby toys, food and other home products.
Unfinished wooden teething toys don't have the chemicals but may not hold the same appeal to your infant29
Opt for organic cloth teething toys, dyed with vegetable or metal-free dyes30
Breastfeed your baby exclusively if possible, for at least the first year (to avoid EDC exposure from infant formula packaging and plastic bottles/nipples).
If bottle-feeding, use glass baby bottles rather than plastic.
Eat mostly fresh whole foods, especially if you're making your baby food. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of BPA and phthalates — particularly cans, but also foods packaged in plastic wrap.
Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
Use glass containers if heating food in your microwave, as heat tends to increase the release of chemicals from plastic.
Be aware that even "BPA-free" plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad as BPA. Look for products made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free.
Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans.
Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.
Teach your children not to drink water from the garden hose to avoid plastic chemicals.
Be careful with cash register receipts. If you use a store regularly, encourage the management to switch to BPA-free receipts.