Are plastics dangerous? If you look around, you will easily find plastics in your kitchenware, disposable bottles, toys, television casing, and more. Plastics can make your life easier, but could they be making you ill? Right now the answer is unclear, but some precautions can be taken.
Certain plastics are made with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). The chemical helps plastic, particularly polycarbonate plastics, be lightweight but tough and able to withstand high heat and have electrical resistance. These types of plastics may be used in baby bottles, hard water bottles, compact discs, dental sealants, and food containers. BPA is also used in epoxy resin, which is used as a protective liner in canned foods. Because of its widespread use, many have begun to question if BPA exposure is safe.
Some animal studies have shown that BPA may have a hormone-like effect in the body. BPA exposure in pregnant animals was found to have some negative effects on fetuses. Babies born to these animals also developed problems after exposure to BPA. In particular, changes occurred in:
It is not clear if BPA exposure would cause the same changes in humans or if humans could consume as much BPA as the lab animals were exposed to.
We come into contact with plastics all around us, but for the most part, we take in BPA through our diets. It seeps into our food or drinks from certain plastic containers and the epoxy resins that line cans. The amount of seepage may vary, depending on the age and condition of the container. Heat is also believed to increase the amount of seepage. Young children may also be exposed when they place BPA materials in their mouths, like certain plastic toys. BPA may also be passed along to the baby during pregnancy or through breastmilk.
The level of BPA exposure, or the amount that transferred from the plastic into the body, was examined during a 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Survey by the Center of Disease Control (CDC). The results, released in 2007, showed that 93% of urine samples, from people all over the United States aged 6 years and older, showed the presence of BPA. Women had some of the higher levels, and children had the highest levels. Since the animal studies showed problems with fetuses and newborns, the higher exposure levels in children and women caused some concern. It became more urgent to understand the effect of BPA on human health and just how it gets into our bodies.
In 2009, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) expressed a level of “some concern” over negative effects of BPA in unborn babies, infants, and children. “Some concern” means that in a review of current evidence, the NTP found that it is unclear if the negative effects seen in animal experiments would be seen in humans, but it cannot be dismissed. This concern will encourage further research to look for connections between BPA exposure and developmental problems.
Some countries have taken big steps to address BPA exposure. Canada has banned BPA in the production of baby bottles, while the European Union and Japan have declared that there is not enough information to institute new changes. In 2008 after conducting a review, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found food-related materials containing BPA to be safe, but they are continuing to investigate. The FDA is encouraging that makers of baby bottles and feeding cups not use BPA until more information is known. In the meantime, precautions can still be taken.
Know that BPA can be delivered through:
Reduce exposure of BPA for infants up to 2 years of age by:
To decrease levels of exposure, consider the following:
Some liquid infant formulas are distributed in cans, but do not change your infant formula without discussing it with your infant’s doctor. Specialized formulas are known to be important to infant development and growth and should not be sacrificed for uncertain connections between BPA and developmental issues.
Research also continues to determine if there are any connections between BPA exposure and health problems, including developmental problems in infants and children. So far, the evidence does not suggest a plastic purge of your home. If you are concerned, you can follow the suggestions above to decrease BPA exposure levels. Many companies have already changed production of baby bottles and plastic toys to avoid the use of BPA and will advertise BPA-free on their products. So while you may make different decisions when buying new items or heating up food, the evidence has yet to support a ban against plastic.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute of Environmental Sciences
Public Health Agency of Canada
BPA press release. Health Canada website. Available at: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/packag-emball/bpa/index-eng.php. Updated December 15, 2014. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Bisphenol A (BPA). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website. Available at: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/sya-bpa/index.cfm. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Bisphenol A fact sheet. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website. Available at: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/assets/docs_a_e/bisphenol_a_bpa_508.pdf#search=bisphenol. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Brannick KE, Craig ZR, Himes AD, et al. Prenatal exposure to low doses of bisphenol A increases pituitary proliferation and gonadotroph in female mice offspring at birth. Biol Reprod. 2012;87(4):82.
Carwile JL, Luu HT, Bassett LS, et al. Polycarbonate bottle use and urinary bisphenol A concentrations. Environ Health Perspect. 2009;117(9):1368-1372.
FDA continues to study BPA. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm297954.htm. Updated January 29, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Prenatal and childhood BPA exposure linked to anxiety, hyperactivity in boys. Environmental Health News website. Available at: http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/newscience/2013/07/boys-bisphenol-a/. Published July 25, 2013. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Spotlight on Bisphenol A fact sheet. CDC website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pdf/BisphenolA_FactSheet.pdf. Updated January 2010. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Yang S. BPA linked to thyroid hormone changes in pregnant women, newborns. UC Berkeley News Center website. Available at: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/10/04/bpa-thyroid-hormone-changes. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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