Plastics are dangerous? Is there some truth to the headlines or just another case of health drama? 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.

The Role of BPA

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 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:

  • Thyroid function
  • Brain growth
  • Behavioral development (hyperactivity)
  • Development of the pituitary gland

It is not clear if BPA exposure would cause the same changes in humans or if humans consume as much BPA as the lab animals were exposed to.

BPA in the Body

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 US aged six 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.

Some Concern

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. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing scientific information to determine if new regulatory actions need to be taken.

The Massachusetts Department of Health released a public health advisory regarding bisphenol A (BPA) on August 3, 2009 for anyone concerned with BPA exposure:

BPA can be delivered through:

  • Clear or colored containers or bottles with the recycling number 7 and the letters PC (polycarbonate plastic)
  • Canned foods
  • Liquid infant formula in canned containers (powdered formula in cans does not appear to have detectable levels of BPA)

Reduce exposure of BPA for infants up to two years of age by:

  • Avoiding the use of containers that have BPA for storage or delivery of infant formula and breast milk
  • Reducing BPA exposure in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
image for feeding infants article

To decrease levels of exposure, consider the following:

  • When possible, choose glass or stainless steel containers; they do not contain BPA.
  • If you have plastics with the recycling number 7, avoid heating the plastic by:
    • Avoid putting them in microwaves or in hot water on the stove, especially when preparing infant formula.
    • Do not put boiling water or hot foods in them.
    • Avoid using the dishwasher—wash by hand with soap and warm water.
    • Replace worn, old, or scratched PC plastic containers.
  • Women that are pregnant or breastfeeding should choose fresh or frozen foods over canned foods to reduce exposure to BPA.

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 very important to infant development and growth and should not be sacrificed for uncertain connections between BPA and developmental issues.

Taking It Home

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 given by the Massachusetts Department of Health 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 plastic paranoia.