BPA—another inconvenient truth

BPA is found in many plastics but evidence about its effects on pregnant women and babies has grown more worrisome recently.

Once upon a time, more than a hundred years ago, a scientist in Germany created a chemical called Bisphenol-A, or BPA.

Around thirty years later, other scientists discovered that BPA was similar to estrogen, the main female hormone of the reproductive system. They thought of using BPA as a synthetic estrogen. But there were better synthetic estrogens, so they didn’t.

Then, in the 1940’s and 50’s, yet other scientists discovered that BPA was a useful chemical after all. They found that it could be used to make all sorts of things, including plastic linings for cans and polycarbonate plastic. Polycarbonate plastic was particularly useful, because it is clear and shatterproof—making it perfect, for example, for baby bottles. Soon BPA was being used in hundreds of different products, from baby and water bottles to bike helmets to dental sealants and medical equipment.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that laws came into place to regulate the safety of industrial chemicals. And that’s where the BPA story gets interesting.

Claire McCarthy MD

As soon as people started looking at the effects of BPA, they found worrisome stuff. It clearly had an effect on the reproductive system, especially when the exposures were during pregnancy or early in life. It seemed to affect behavior, as well, and there were also concerns that it might increase the risk of certain cancers.

But not all the evidence was conclusive. Some studies were very clear, but others weren’t. A lot of the research was done in mice, and people said that wasn’t the same as doing it in people. So while many reports expressed “concern” about BPA, it didn’t get banned. Companies kept on using it, for more and more products. Because, remember, BPA is an very useful chemical. It is literally everywhere now. Banning it would have huge negative implications for industry.

And we don’t like to do things that have huge negative implications for industry, of course.

Over the past five or so years, though, the evidence about effects on pregnant women and babies has grown more worrisome. Just this week another study was published that showed that the daughters of women who had high BPA levels during pregnancy were more likely to have behavioral problems at age 3. Canada banned the use of BPA in baby bottles in 2010, and the European Union followed shortly after. There have been some state bans here in the US, but as of yet no clear national action.

But here’s the thing: banning use in baby bottles, while good, doesn’t stop the exposure during pregnancy—and exposure during pregnancy is clearly dangerous. With BPA everywhere, from the lining of nearly all canned food in the US to commonly used plastics to cash register receipts, it’s really hard to avoid it. In the study released this week, essentially all of the pregnant women had BPA in their bodies.

I talked to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston and a faculty member of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.  He said:

“The big question is how BPA got so widespread in the products we use everyday as food containers and especially in baby bottles.  These, and other, health findings related to BPA remind us that we can and must do better when it comes to foreseeing trouble related to the chemicals we put into our environment. Right now we have too much of a buy now and pay later approach to chemical safety. Tens of thousands of chemicals are in use and hardly any of them have been studied with any rigor for their safety. Wouldn’t it make more sense to test for harms first rather than find out later?”

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

I couldn’t agree more. The more I read about the history of BPA and its use, the more I am struck by the fact that when questions about safety were raised, we gave the benefit of the doubt to industry—not children.

I get that it’s hard to know all the effects of every chemical, and that this research is really inconvenient and expensive. And I get that the progress and jobs that industry brings are important. But when there are lives at stake, and especially when those most affected are unborn and young children, Dr. Bernstein is absolutely right: we need to do better.

Sometimes doing the right thing is inconvenient and expensive. But that doesn’t make it any less right. It shouldn’t be a fight to keep children safe. It should just be what we do.