One chemical that was not considered much of a problem, even though it is common in the manufactured products we use every day, is now a topic that is flashing red. Let's look at why it is dangerous, why it may even have the capacity to kill our species, and what we can do to eliminate or minimise the risk it poses.
There are many chemicals in our modern lives that create a real danger for our healthy development. Some cause trouble when they are absent, such as iodine and folate (a B-group vitamin). Others damage development when they are present, for example mercury and lead. Over time synthetic chemicals have also provided us with more to worry about. In my childhood we has the issue of pesticides such as DDT, today there are vicious battles over PFAS and other environmental and household contaminants.
When changing my mind about a chemical or material I look for data about either a vested interest that has been uncovered or a new study that highlights a mistake that has been made and suddenly throws light on the importance of a suite of previous studies. It can be a missing piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle. This happened just the other day with an online publication (December 5, 2019) in the prestigious journal, The Lancet - Diabetes & Endocrinology. It deals with a chemical called bisphenol A or BPA for short.
So, have you heard about BPA before? This contaminant chemical is now in most people's bodies. More disturbingly, it not only affects the body organs but also has the capacity to rewrite the brain!
Regulators though, have assured us that human exposure to BPA is considered to be negligible, on the basis of the small quantities showing up in urine tests; tests that look at excretion of breakdown products (an indirect measure). Now though, this new study, which compared direct and indirect measures, blows the idea that we are safe out of the water by suggesting that we are absorbing much higher concentrations than previously estimated; possibly 44 times higher.
The chemical is termed an endocrine-disrupting agent because it affects our hormone systems, competing with and replacing as well as boosting estrogen-like effects.
It also seems that autism genes are selectively targeted by BPA, as well as other environmental contaminants; and in a 2017 review of many studies, exposure to BPA is generally linked with "higher levels of anxiety, depression, aggression, and hyperactivity in children" when exposure occurs before birth, and when after birth, "higher levels of anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention, and conduct problems." Most worrying of all, a rodent-based study now shows that rewriting of the brain which occurs with exposure is passed on to subsequent generations.
For us adults, beyond its more subtle effects on brain plasticity and memory, BPA can be a cause of obesity and type 2 diabetes - both epidemics in our society at present - as well as reduced fertility. It plays a role in "about 20 percent of unexplained infertility" cases. So, you can see that it is no exaggeration to label this chemical a species killer.
The chemical is used in many food storage plastics, water bottles, toys and baby items such as teethers, can liners, and epoxy resins. Also, modern receipts, printed at most shops these days, use thermal paper rather than ink and so often contain BPA. Here, the chemical is impregnated into the paper to help as a colour change agent that gets print to appear on the paper with heating. Since the chemical can be absorbed through contact with skin the paper is a common source for those supplying the receipts all day long.
So, what can be done to avoid contact or consumption? BPA has been of enough concern in the general public for some product manufacturers to stop using it and stamp their products as BPA free. Many plastic wraps and bags are now marked as BPA free, or the information is provided on their website. Some plastic water bottles are BPA-free too. And there are even BPA and phenol free thermal papers available. Perhaps ask the shops you frequent if they use these, or opt for digital receipts.
With the current war on plastics there will be a decrease in exposure over time, which is good news. Replacing plastics with paper or glass can help, but beware that although glass containers are safe from the chemical, the plastic sealing that runs around the inside of metal lids can still contain the molecule. Metal may also seem safe, but check if it has a resin coating, as found in some cans storing food, and even some water flasks, because this may contain BPA. Specialist BPA-free sites are available with all sorts of replacement products. With Christmas coming up they might just make an ideal gift. Awareness, education and consumer choice build our power-base for change.
Posts will reduce in frequency for a while but will return, so till the next one I wish for you a recharge and a safe and fun time – B.W. Cribb