The Science Behind BPA

The Science Behind BPA

Proponents of BPA (the ubiquitous chemical bisphenol-A) are fueling a science war. To counter the growing sentiment that BPA is harmful, chemical-industry lobbyists recently launched a splashy advertising campaign asking consumers to “listen to the science” about BPA. We agree! But why would proponents of something that is now judged too toxic for pregnant mothers and babies tell you to look at the science? Well, let’s look at the science.

Where it is found: BPA is used to make strong, transparent plastics for food storage and packaging. It’s in the thin, slightly powdery coating on the thermal paper used for most cash-register receipts. It’s used in the epoxy resins that line most food cans and in some fire retardants in electronics.

What the chemical industry says: The American Chemistry Council is correct that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) say BPA is safe at the levels most of us are exposed to. 

What we say: The FDA and EFSA haven’t yet taken into account a growing body of research that suggests even at low levels, repeated exposure to BPA can change your endocrine functions (BPA’s a hormone disruptor) and have other long-lasting effects on developing fetuses and infants as well as damaging sperm quality. Other research is even more troubling.

What nearly 100 human studies found: Everyday BPA exposure is associated with troubling—and increasingly common—health issues such as behavior and reproductive problems, high blood pressure, polycystic ovarian syndrome and weight-related problems such as diabetes.

  • A study from New Jersey’s Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine has found an association between BPA levels in children and risk for autism spectrum disorder.
  • A lab study from the University of Houston found exposure to BPA used as flame-retardants in computers, cell phones and other electronics may be linked to unwanted weight gain.
  • Another study puts the healthcare cost of obesity-related to BPA at more than $1.5 billion dollars over several decades.

Those who know agree: When Newsweek interviewed 20 prominent scientists who research BPA, the majority said it’s likely the chemical is linked to all of those health problems and to several forms of cancer as well, though more study is needed.

How does BPA cause trouble? When it gets into living cells, BPA is an endocrine disruptor. Not only does that mess with your metabolism and lead to weight gain, it also acts like estrogen and may have a particularly strong effect on fetal sexual development. (It feminizes male infants in many animal experiments.) It may also have an effect on brain development given its ability to change the activation of genes: Animal studies—and some research in children - suggest it may increase the risk for aggression and anxiety.

Here’s what YOU can do: Although BPA is in many products you’re in contact with every day, and alternative chemicals from the same bisphenol family (bisphenol B, C, E, F, G, M, P, PH, S, TMC and Z) used in many plastics labeled “BPA-free” may have similar effects, these strategies can help you reduce your exposure:

  1. Don’t heat/microwave food or drinks in plastic containers. Heat speeds the transfer of BPA from plastics into edibles. Store food, especially acidic foods like tomato sauce, in glass or uncoated metal containers.
  2. Say “no thanks” to receipts, tickets and anything else printed on thermal paper. If you take one, wash your hands. BPA may be absorbed through the skin and can hitchhike from your fingers into your body when you eat.
  3. Eat fresh instead of canned fruit. Ditto for veggies. Avoiding plastic food packaging whenever possible will reduce your exposure too.

Medically reviewed in April 2018.

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