What Does "BPA Free" Mean? (BPA And Your Health in 2019)

General Medical

Tammy George

Man in a supermarket reaching for canned food off the shelf

BPA is one of the most studied chemicals in history. The research has focused on how it enters the human body, what it does while inside and the health risks. After research in the US found BPA to be harmful to human health, there was a push for "BPA-free" products as countries around the world phased out its use in products consumed by the most vulnerable – babies and young children.

A large portion of the Australian population is still exposed to BPA today in items they use or consume every day. But what is the safe daily limit and how can you reduce your level of exposure to BPA?


What is BPA?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical that has been in use for 50 years. BPA is used to manufacture synthetics including polycarbonate and epoxy resins.


What are the Risks of BPA?

BPA is known to disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking the human hormone, oestrogen. The disruption can cause infertility, cancers of the breast and reproductive organs, early puberty, behaviour issues in children, obesity, diabetes and resistance to chemotherapy treatment.

There is also evidence to show that BPA may be linked to congenital disabilities and problems with the developing brain and prostate gland in male foetuses.  

Research by Environmental Working Group (EWG) has also shown BPA can cause epigenetic changes where genes switch on and off, and genetic changes passed on to the next generation.    


Where is BPA Found?

BPA has been used in several product types including:

Polycarbonate – the clear, hard plastic used for food and drink containers because of its strong, lightweight, transparent qualities.

Epoxy resins – used in coatings and industrial adhesives for lining tin cans containing food, water lines and bottle tops to stop corrosion.

Receipts – some thermal store receipts use BPA as a coating on the paper.

BPA was phased out of baby bottles and cups in 2010. Many plastic drink bottles and food storage containers are now promoted as BPA free.

Manufacturers of some canned foods continue to use BPA in the lining and BPA is still used on the coating of many thermal receipts shoppers receive.    


What Does "BPA-Free" Mean?

You will now often see plastic items like water bottles and containers labeled "BPA-Free". Does this guarantee they are safe and free of any potentially harmful chemicals? Not necessarily - read our section about "Regrettable Substitution" to be aware of other potential risks other than BPA.


Is BPA-Free Possible or is There a Safe Level?

Because BPA is used in canned foods and everyday items, it’s impossible for most of the general population to avoid BPA and be completely BPA-free. Therefore, a safe exposure level is required.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a tolerable daily intake or maximum safe exposure study. They concluded that the safe exposure level for humans to ingest is up to 50 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has adopted this exposure level. In a report prepared for the Australian Parliament, FSANZ illustrated the point with the following example. A 9kg baby would need to consume 1kg of custard from cans with a BPA lining every day to reach the maximum safe level.   


How Much Exposure Have We Had?

Over the past 50 years BPA has been used in a wide range of products that would be difficult to avoid even if the risks were known. It’s hard to calculate how much exposure each of us has had and what the negative health effects have been if any.

The FDA believes BPA is safe in small doses but is continuing its research. It therefore has allowed BPA to remain in some packaging.

Your level of exposure is primarily dictated by your diet. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health tested a group of 75 people for BPA after eating a single serve of canned vegetarian soup for five days. After two days off they ate a similar freshly prepared soup for five days. Urine sample tests showed their BPA levels were 1,221% higher after consuming the canned soup than the fresh soup.


Who is Most at Risk of BPA Exposure?

Most people living in the western world are likely to be exposed to BPA. In one of the earlier tests, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found BPA in the urine of almost every one of the 2,517 survey participants over the age of six in 2003-2004.

While the level of exposure was widespread, it was not implied that the levels would cause adverse health effects. The amount of exposure and how early in life exposure begins is of greatest concern.


Young Children

Because BPA mimics the biological activity of oestrogen, babies and young children are most at risk. Due to their low body weight and reliance on hormones for growth and development, BPA can have the greatest impact on their bodies.

In fact, unborn babies are even at risk of BPA. The EWG found BPA in 9 out of 10 cord blood samples they tested. The babies, from a range of descents, were born within a six-month period in 2007-08 across five different states. The sample cord blood was tested in four different laboratories in the US. This study was the first to confirm that BPA contamination starts in the womb.

The EWG was concerned that soon after birth their exposure could increase through drinking milk from a baby bottle, consuming canned formula and, once old enough for solids, eating canned food.

How to Limit Exposure:

  • Pregnant women should limit the number of canned foods they eat
  • Babies are protected now that BPA has been phased out of formula packaging, baby bottles and cups.


Consumers of Canned Food

Some children and adults rely on canned food for a portion of their diet for economic and convenience reasons. BPA is still being used in the linings of many brands of canned food, so these regular consumers are likely to be exposed to far more BPA than the rest of the population.  

How to Limit Exposure:

  • Limit the number of canned foods you eat
  • Choose brands of canned food that are BPA free


People Handling Store Receipts

Some thermal paper used for printed receipts has a coating which uses BPA. The chemical can easily rub off and be absorbed into the body through the skin, and the amount is significant. One scientist claimed you are exposed to more BPA holding one receipt than you would receive using a polycarbonate water bottle for years.  

A US university research study showed that touching a receipt for five minutes could result in elevated BPA levels in volunteers’ urine for up to one week. Consuming BPA in food showed a spike in the level after five hours and completely cleared their systems within 24 hours. This is because ingested BPA is metabolised quickly by the liver but BPA absorbed through the skin takes longer to metabolise.     

How to Limit Exposure:

  • If you won’t need a receipt after a purchase, don’t take one
  • Keep receipts in an envelope so the chemical doesn’t rub off on other personal items
  • Don’t give a receipt to keep a baby or toddler busy on a shopping trip
  • After handling a receipt, wash your hands with soap and water within a few minutes of contact
  • Don’t use hand sanitiser as this increases absorption


What Australians Know about BPA – Separating Fact & Fiction

Most Australians have some knowledge of BPA and its potential harm in food packaging.  The government announced a voluntary phasing out of BPA in baby bottles and infant cups in 2010. As a result, consumers threw out old bottles and cups and purchased new products with BPA free promoted on the packaging.

Many people saw a viral email claiming Sheryl Crow developed breast cancer after drinking from a water bottle left in the sun. The email claimed that Crow’s oncologist told her chemicals from the heated plastic such as dioxin leach into the water. The toxin is often found in cancerous breast tissue. The email was later revealed as a hoax, but it increased people’s awareness of the potential for chemicals in containers to leach into food.

After BPA was phased out of children’s bottles and cups, some Australians assumed that BPA was removed from all food packaging. Many Australians remain unaware that BPA is still found in many canned foods. The amount of BPA is within the safe exposure levels, set by FSANZ.    


Who is Concerned about BPA in Australia?

The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is responsible for food and food packaging. The FSANZ conducted a survey of BPA in foods published in 2010. A follow-up study analysed 65 foods and beverages in a range of packaging to test for chemical migration from packaging materials into Australian food.   

FSANZ reviews BPA research studies on experimental animals and epidemiology studies from around the world and responds to some on their website.

Australian consumer group Choice researched 38 canned foods in 2014. Five were shown to contain more than 200 parts per billion (ppb) while 17 recorded BPA levels between 10 ppb to 200 ppb. Choice was particularly concerned that some baby and toddler foods contained fairly high levels of BPA.


What is Happening Overseas with BPA?

Many scientists around the world agree that large doses of BPA are toxic to humans and can cause serious health problems. In response, food safety authorities in many countries took steps to ban BPA from food containers and packaging.  

The European Food Safety Authority agreed with the safe exposure limit announced by WHO and FDA. The European Union has phased out BPA in some products as has Canada and some states of the US. Brazil, Malaysia and China have also banned BPA in baby bottles.

Denmark introduced a temporary ban on BPA appearing in any packaging of food marketed for children under the age of three years.

But, it’s important to monitor the ongoing research and the actions different governments take around the world when it comes to chemical exposure.

Research is continuing into the health effects of small doses of BPA.


Shortcomings of Research into BPA

Research is conducted on both animals and humans to evaluate BPA. It is one of the most well-studied chemicals in history, but not all studies provide the answers. The FSANZ review of several studies listed potential problems with many of them.

Some of the limitations of research using animals are:

  • Statistic validity due to the small number of animals used in a survey
  • Rats and mice are less efficient than humans at detoxifying BPA
  • Male rodents’ prostate gland is impacted by their social status

The epidemiology studies on humans noted limitations such as:

  • Urinary BPA levels represented a snapshot of short-term exposure
  • Occupational exposure to chemicals other than BPA was not tested
  • Behaviour of children was based on just one time point

One report states: ‘FSANZ acknowledges that there are some unresolved uncertainties in the data on BPA, and notes that further studies are currently being conducted in the US to address these uncertainties.’


Could BPA Free Become Another Case of ‘Regrettable Substitution’?

The only problem with manufacturers switching to BPA Free is that a substitute chemical is needed for BPA. One of the common replacement chemicals is PET, also used for soft drink and bottled water.

Because so much research was completed on BPA before being phased-out of some products in 2010, we know far more about BPA than PET. Research has provided information on safe levels and health implications on different sections of the population. With less-studied chemicals, we can’t be sure they are a safe alternative.

Consumers may have a false sense of security thinking they are choosing a safer product than the one containing BPA. A ‘regrettable substitution’ occurs when a toxic chemical is inadvertently replaced with another equally toxic chemical.

According to Harvard School of Health, a chemical is innocent until proven dangerous because the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would take decades to test the 80,000 chemicals currently in use.  

A well-known regrettable substitution is the case of a brake cleaner containing dichloromethane. When research found that it was harming the environment, the brake cleaner was phased out. It was replaced by a new product containing n-hexane, a chemical later found to be neurotoxic to humans, which was even worse than the product it replaced.  


Other Potentially Dangerous Chemicals in Plastics

Following the 2010 BPA survey, FSANZ assessed food packaging in 2014. 65 foods and beverages in a range of packages including glass, paper, plastic and cans were checked.  FSANZ wanted to check if any chemicals found in the packaging presented any health and safety risks by leaching into foods and beverages.

The list of chemicals included phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO), semicarbazide, acrylonitrile and vinyl chloride. Only ESBO was detected - at low levels - to have migrated into the food. ESBO is Produced from soybean oil and added to plastics like margarine containers to help form a seal between the food container and its lid.

The survey found that chemical levels were well below the limit set by the European Union and didn’t pose a risk to humans.

The US Consumer Reports advises to only put dishwasher safe plastic products on the top shelf of the dishwasher away from the heating element. The high heat from a dishwasher can cause chemicals to leach from plastic containers.

The Cancer Council of WA claims that DEHP is a possible carcinogen. Studies have shown that it causes cancer in rats and mice however it would be at higher levels than humans are usually exposed. DEHP is found in soft, flexible plastic or foamed plastic such as bath toys and soft plastic books. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) placed a permanent ban on children’s products with more than 1% DEHP.  

It is a reality of modern life that industrial chemicals like BPA are in products we use every day. The task of scientists is to find out which ones are potentially harming our health and for government authorities to ban their use.   


In Conclusion - This Consumers Take on All of This

I’ve decided to follow the recommendations of Choice to limit my family’s exposure to BPA.   

I was surprised that BPA is still used in the manufacture of some canned food, so I’ll be making an effort not to buy cans unless there is no other alternative. Where possible, I’ll buy food in glass jars or frozen foods. But there are some products I cook with that are only sold in cans, so they aren’t completely off the shopping list.

Personally, I won’t put the plastic in the dishwasher or reheat food in plastic containers in the microwave in future. If there is a potential for chemicals to leach from plastic containers into food, I’d prefer to use glass or ceramic containers. Hopefully, this all translates into eating a meal that doesn’t come with a side serving of chemicals.

At HIF we try to promote healthy lifestyles for our members, which is why we created this Healthy Lifestyle blog. Concerned about being BPA-free and looking after your family's health? Take a look at our award winning health insurancehospital cover and pet insurance options.

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Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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