What is BPA, and where is it found?
The plastics chemical bisphenol A was first synthesized in 1891. In the mid-1930s, scientists determined it was a synthetic estrogen. At that time, it was investigated as a potential pharmaceutical drug alongside the more potent estrogenic compound DES, or diethylstilbestrol, which has since been banned.
Over the years, BPA was commercialized and widely adopted for a range of uses. It is a key component in hard, polycarbonate plastic, thermal receipt paper and epoxy resins – the protective lining of food and beverage containers, industrial equipment and piping. It’s also found in sealants used in everything from construction to dentistry.
In the U.S., BPA is considered a high-production-volume chemical, with releases estimated at more than 1 million pounds per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Due to its widespread use, BPA has become a ubiquitous pollutant of soil, water, air and wildlife. Biomonitoring studies indicate that the chemical can be found in nearly all Americans. BPA has been measured in human blood, urine, breast milk and umbilical cord blood, according to tests conducted by EWG.
BPA readily leaches from epoxy-resin linings, and food packaging may be the largest source of human exposure to the chemical. On thermal paper, it exists in a free, or unpolymerized, form, and may be present on this paper in much higher concentrations than in food packaging. It can easily rub off thermal paper, including receipts, onto skin and can make its way into the body through skin and oral exposure, which is particularly concerning for the tens of thousands of retail workers who handle hundreds of receipts daily.
EWG’s analysis of data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed retail workers had 30 percent more BPA in their bodies than the average U.S. adult. Manufacturing workers who are directly exposed to high doses of BPA had roughly 70 times more BPA in their urine than the average U.S. adult, according to the National Institute for Safety and Health.
Although it may be challenging because of the widespread use of the chemical, there are steps consumers can take to limit their exposure to BPA.
What are the health impacts of BPA exposure?
More than 30 years of studies point to the significant health effects of BPA exposure, including:
Brain, behavioral, learning and memory impairment
Breast and prostate cancer
Thyroid and sex hormone disruption
Changes to egg and sperm development and fertility
Genetic alterations that can be passed on to future generations
Pregnant women, infants and children are most susceptible to the hazards of BPA exposure, because any disruptions to proper hormone functioning can affect routine growth and development during these periods.
Results from a safety study called CLARITY-BPA, launched in 2012 – a partnership among the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and 14 independent researchers – confirm significant biological effects, even at low doses of BPA exposure.
The CLARITY-BPA researchers have introduced novel methodologies to detect harms with greater sensitivity and to capture dose responses that are more relevant for endocrine disruptors than those currently in use. Yet the FDA undermines the work of those independent scientists, and even its own CLARITY data. Consistent evidence points to the agency’s bias toward industry-funded research and flawed, outdated science in its assessment of BPA safety.
What changes have industry and government made?
Market surveys and groundbreaking investigations of receipts and food, beverage and formula cans revealed the significant extent of BPA use in the market. In 2011, California enacted legislation, sponsored by EWG, banning BPA in baby bottles and cups. By 2015, a number of states had passed similar legislation banning or limiting BPA in reusable food containers or one-time-use food cans.
In 2015 California officials also added BPA to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm and requiring warnings on products or store shelves. The food industry fought the mandate while quietly publishing the largest known database of products believed to contain BPA.
The groundswell of state-level support for regulation, along with persistent pressure from retailers, NGOs and the public, caused the industry to start moving away from BPA. Only after the industry’s permanent abandonment of BPA use in infant formula packaging did the FDA act to ban it from formula. Further attempts to regulate BPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act, or to pass new federal rules, that would prohibit BPA more broadly as a food packaging chemical or for other uses have stalled.
Once heavily used in the production of food can coatings, more recently it is no longer presumed that BPA is used in the manufacture of most of those linings. We continue to track and report on the use and safety of BPA replacements, some of which are regrettable substitutes, such as BPS and polyvinyl chloride copolymers, also known as PVC. Many alternatives are poorly disclosed by manufacturers or lack adequate safety testing, or both, and we encourage greater transparency and precaution.