For many decades, plastic has been considered as the main material for storing food and drinks primarily because they are unbreakable and cheap. However, with recent studies showing that plastic food containers and bottles contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals classified as bisphenol-A, bisphenol-S, and phthalates, it seems that plastic is not a good choice after all.
First off, what is BPA and why is this cause for concern? Do BPAs really cause health concerns? BPA or bisphenol A is an industrial chemical primarily used to manufacture polycarbonate plastics which make up a lot of plastic food containers and water bottles. The disconcerting thing about this is that the chemical leaches into the food and beverage contained inside these BPA foods and drink containers and the leaching increases when plastic is exposed to heat. BPA contains potent components that are endocrine disruptors.
The body’s endocrine system is responsible for regulating the function of the tissues, metabolism, and the reproductive system. The thing about BPA is that the chemical components have similar structure and can even imitate the body’s natural hormones. With the entry of these chemicals to the body, they can disrupt the otherwise normal functions thereby resulting in adverse side effects.
A study conducted by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and published in the Human Reproduction journal showed that BPA can affect the maturation of eggs in women. According to the results of their study, eggs which have been exposed to BPA have decreased in maturation and degenerated. Another alarming result is that there is an increase in spontaneous activation among the exposed eggs, wherein unfertilized eggs acted like they are fertilized. These results show that there is a link between BPA exposure and infertility among women.
A separate study among men, conducted in China, showed that those who were exposed to BPA experienced erectile dysfunction, lower sex drive, erectile difficulty and in general, had lower sexual functions. As these endocrine-disrupting chemicals have “gender-bending” effects, men also have risks of accelerated testosterone decline that can lead to depression, development of heart disease, weight gain, breast enlargement and difficulties in cognitive functions.
A new research also showed that pregnant women exposed to phthalates, which is another component in plastic food and drink containers, have an increased risk of bearing a son with lower testosterone synthesis, impaired reproductive development, smaller genitals and descended testicles.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 25 percent of those exposed to high BPA levels are at the risk of having heart disease, diabetes, and abnormal liver enzymes. A separate study, conducted by the University of Cincinnati also showed a close link between BPA and cardiac arrest among women. In the study, it showed that the effects of BPA were alleviated when exposed to estradiol, an estrogen component majorly present in female hormones.
A study led by Yale University School of Medicine among non-human primates showed that even lower levels of BPAs compliant to EPA’s safe daily limit can still be dangerous to brain function and development. The goal of the study was to mimic the slow yet constant exposure of humans to the chemical. The result showed that even with low BPA levels, the chemical still managed to block the production of estradiol, which is not only secreted in the ovaries but also in the brain. Estradiol is an essential hormone that helps in the development and function of the hippocampus and prefrontal complex. These two parts of the brain are responsible for mood regulation and memory retention.
With their study, they were able to create a link between BPA and its adverse effects on the human brain. The authors of the study were concerned about people’s cumulative exposure to BPA, especially those with lower estradiol levels such as babies and older people. This can also be correlated to reduced IQ among children who were exposed to BPAs. The presence of phthalates in the system interferes with the production of the thyroid, which is an essential hormone in brain development. Phthalates also disrupt the production of dopamine, that can lead to the development of hyperactivity and inattention among children.
Another study conducted by the Yale School of Medicine showed that exposure of pregnant women to BPA can result to the development of cancer amongst their offspring. It was found that these offspring had higher levels of EZH2 which is a protein compound associated with increased risk of breast cancer. Even while in the uterus, there is already a prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors which increases the eventual risk of cancer when a female comes of age. On the other hand, male offspring are also at risk of developing prostate cancer, according to a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The control group exposed to BPAs, which had mature male stem cells, started to show pre-cancer lesions and even full prostate cancer tissues within just four months of testing. According to the lead researcher, BPA reprograms the stem cells in the body to become more sensitive to estrogen, which can lead to higher vulnerability to diseases including cancer.
And chemotherapy is not the answer either. In fact, a University of Cincinnati study showed that BPA chemicals induce the production of protein in the body which protects that cancer cells from being affected by chemotherapy. The chemical’s structure is similar to the structure of the cancer-promoting compound DES. While BPA does not mimic the mechanism of DES, the chemical mimics estrogen which is associated with production of protein group that protects the affected cells from responding to the toxic effects of the anti-cancer treatment including medication and chemotherapy.
A recent study showed that drinking from cans and plastic bottles lined with BPA can cause an immediate increase in blood pressure. Although a single event might be insignificant, it should be taken into account that this practice is commonly done on a daily basis. However, the accumulative and repeated exposure can lead to the development of hypertension. The randomized study took in 60 participants, all of whom did not have any history of high blood pressure. The participants were asked to drink soy, which is fairly neutral from leaching and does not have any components associated with elevated blood pressure, from cans and from glass bottles. It was found that after drinking from a glass bottle, there was no increase in urinary BPA levels. However, after drinking from a can, the urinary BPA increased 16 times higher. With the increased of BPA level in the body, the systolic blood pressure also increased.
You might see BPA-free plastic products in the market, but as it turns out, even these can be harmful or even more dangerous to your health. Manufacturers have only replaced BPA with yet another toxic chemical known as BPS or bisphenol-S. Bisphenol-S also has the similar endocrine-disrupting, hormone-mimicking characteristics of BPAs. What is alarming is that BPS is less biodegradable and is more resistant to heat, compared to BPA. For these reasons, once BPS enters the system, it has a higher tendency to retain and accumulate longer. And since it is more resistant to the environment, its potency of leaching is even higher than BPAs.
The best alternative to plastic, at this point, is lead-free, food-grade glass. When buying preserved foods at the supermarket, opt for jarred good over canned ones, which is also a major source of BPA, aside from plastic. It would even be better to shop for fresh, organic foods than the packaged ones, as the containers are also wrapped in plastic. When storing your food, choose glass container and use it when you heat the food in the microwave, since plastic leaches strongly to heat. Another step that you can do to reduce BPA exposure is to go for organic, sustainable products, not just with your food, but also for personal and home care. Although it might not be plausible to entirely avoid BPA exposure, you can still reduce it to a level that wouldn’t harm you and your family from now on.
Do you try to avoid BPAs? Let us know below if this is an important issue for you.