Over two decades ago, scientists discovered that a chemical commonly used in food packaging could leach into the food it was meant to protect and potentially cause long-term health problems if repeatedly ingested. But the plastics and chemical industries maintained that the chemical called Bisphenol-A (BPA) was safe, and federal regulators refused to ban it from food packaging.
Teenagers are now living with the fallout from that decision. A new study published in the journal BMJ Open suggests that 86 percent of teens are regularly ingesting BPA, even when they try to avoid it.
The study, lead by researchers at the University of Exeter in England, enlisted 94 British teenagers on a dietary challenge. Over a period of seven days, the teenagers were tasked with attempting a BPA-free diet by avoiding processed foods and other known sources of the chemical.
Numerous studies have already found that BPA is present in most American adults, but because the chemical is metabolized quickly, scientists also know that limiting exposure to BPA can quickly reduce its presence in the human body.
While that idea may be nice in theory, it’s difficult in practice. After a week of attempting a BPA-free diet, the majority of the teens still had the chemical present in their urine.
“We found no evidence in this self-administered intervention study that it was possible to moderate BPA exposure by diet in a real-world setting,” the researchers concluded. “Furthermore, our study participants indicated that they would be unlikely to sustain such a diet long term, due to the difficulty in identifying BPA-free foods.”
The researchers are calling for batter labeling of food packaging that contains BPA. In both the U.S. and in England, companies often tout their food packaging as BPA-free but are not required to label food packaging that contains BPA.
"Our study shows that currently we do not have much of a choice about being exposed to BPA,” said researcher Lorna Harries in a statement. “We believe that much better labelling of products containing BPA is needed so people can make an informed choice.”
Health groups speak out against BPA
BPA is commonly found in the linings of canned food, in reusable plastic bottles, plastic dishes, and other reusable plastic foodware, in soda and beer cans, in fast food, and in the lining of cash register receipts. The American plastics industry says that BPA is a necessary component of plastic and resin products that are “essential to many consumer and industrial products for modern living” and has even created a website devoted to defending BPA.
Public health groups in the U.S. have repeatedly petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban BPA from food packaging, but the agency sided with the industry’s stance and issued a decision in 2012 that it would not institute the ban, declaring that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”
A similar political battle played out across the pond, where the British Plastics Federation has claimed it is the victim of a “witch hunt.” However, the European Chemicals Agency, which regulates chemicals in the European Union, identified BPA last year as a chemical of “very high concern” and plans to restrict its usage in receipts and other common goods by 2020.
Scientists have been far more steadfast than regulators in their concerns about BPA, which is part of a family of chemicals that scientists have labeled “endocrine disruptors” because the body confuses them with the natural hormone estrogen once ingested. Numerous studies have suggested a link between BPA and breast cancer, male infertility, obesity, and behavioral issues, among other health problems.
While an estimated 93 percent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies, previous research has found that people can cut their exposure in half by replacing processed food with fresh food over a period of just three days.