‘BPA Free’ – Is It Really Better?

Chemicals in plastic have always worried me and I have always wondered what ‘they’ replaced BPA with. Thank you so much Monique for shedding light on this topic. I always thought I was making the best health choice for my family choosing ‘BPA Free’ but you have answered my question beautifully. The beeswax wraps you refer to are very exciting. Thanks so much for your amazing article. This is really going to enlighten people and create some direction for families around their exposure to BPA and its replacements. I know we can make better decisions around plastics also. Can’t wait for some incredible change! Tahlia xo

Written by Monique Stagnitti

By now most of us are aware that Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, has endocrine disrupting, genotoxic, cytotoxic, and neurotoxic effects; meaning it has harmful effects on our reproduction and development, nervous, cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems. Because of the large volume of research supporting these findings, many of us have made ‘BPA free’ our mantra to live by. However, living a ‘BPA free’ life may be doing us more harm than good.

BPA is used to produce commercial and domestic products, such as polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, water pipes, food containers, paper products (e.g. thermal receipts), toys, medical equipment, and electronics. Given that it is one of the most commonly produced chemicals worldwide, we are exposed to it through both dietary (beverages, dairy products, fats and oils, fish and seafood, meat, cereals, fruits, and vegetables packaged in cans, glass, paper, or plastic containers), and non-dietary sources (indoor dust, sediments, fresh and seawater, soil, sewage effluent and sludge). Dietary sources provide our greatest level of exposure compared to non-dietary sources however, by at least one order of magnitude.
Given its detrimental effects on human health, its import and use in infant feeding bottles has been banned by both the Canadian Government and the European Union. However, due to the regulations on the production and usage of BPA, several analogues have been produced to replace it.

BPA is still the major compound used, however a total of 15 other analogues have been used to replace it. Of these analogues, BPF, BPAF, and BPS are the most commonly used. All 3 are used as substitutes for polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins; BPF is further used in lacquers, varnishes, liners, adhesives, plastics, water pipes, dental sealants, oral prosthetic devices, tissue substitutes, and coatings for food packaging; and BPS is commonly used in epoxy glues, can coatings, receipt papers, and as an additive in dyes and tanning agents. BPF and BPS have been found in higher concentrations in water and human urine than BPA respectively, demonstrating their persistence in the environment and our increased exposure to these substitute analogues. BPS is more resistant than BPA to migration from plastic containers, however due to its wide human exposure which has already been documented, it is becoming a potential health risk.

Bisphenol analogues have been found in personal care products (including body washes, hair care products, makeup, sanitary products, skin lotions, toilet soaps, and toothpaste), thermal receipt papers, currency bills, household waste papers, and recycled paper products. As BPS is the major substitute analogue used in receipt papers, it is also the highest analogue found on currency bills, due to the to the contact between money and receipts. Approximately 30% of receipts enter paper recycling systems, and because of this, there and now significant levels of bisphenol analogues in recycled and waste paper products (e.g. toilet paper). This then provides a means for bisphenols to enter wastewater systems, and into the environment.

Consumers are mainly exposed to bisphenols through skin contact and hand-to-mouth transfer from various consumer products. Limited studies have suggested that children may be subject to greater BPS exposure than adults, a pattern that has been reported for BPA. Children may be subject to enhanced exposure due to dust ingestion and frequent hand-to-mouth transfer. Further, hand sanitizers, as well as other skin care products that contain mixtures of dermal penetration enhancing chemicals can increase the absorption of bisphenol analogues up to 100-fold.

Dietary sources are also a critical route of exposure, with BPF found to be the second most abundant analogue in use in a U.S. survey of various food items. Canned foods were found to contain higher concentrations of individual and total bisphenols, compared to foods that were sold in glass, paper, or plastic containers. However, interestingly, in addition to contamination from food can coatings, natural occurrence of BPF was also reported in mild mustard made of the seeds of Sinapis alba. Because of this, the consumption of 20 g of mustard can include a significant intake of BPF.

Other environmental exposure routes are through fresh and seawater, sewage effluent, sludge, sediments, and soil. Overall, BPA was still generally the dominant analogue found, contributing to over 60% of the total bisphenol concentrations in the environment, however BPF and BPS were also frequently detected as the second and third most abundant analogues. BPA and other analogues seems to undergo rapid metabolism however, which lessens their accumulation in the environment. However, some analogues have a tendency to adsorb into sediments, and also to accumulate in tissues.

Many of the analogues exhibit endocrine disrupting effects, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and neurotoxicity in laboratory studies, with activities similar to, or even greater than BPA. A literature review of the bisphenol analogues, including BPF and BPS, has shown that they have both estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, androgenic, and anti-androgenic activities within the same magnitude, or greater than BPA, meaning they can interfere with hormones on many different levels. In comparison with BPA, BPF and BPAF also enhanced the formation of reactive oxygen species, increasing oxidative stress within the body. Oxidative stress is implicated in a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. Further, all tested bisphenols affected genes related to fetal development, but only BPA affected genes related to the immune system.

BPA, BPF, and BPS also affected the dopamine and serotonin systems in the prefrontal cortex of rats, which is the area of the brain involved in complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour in humans. In addition, exposure to BPA or BPS in zebrafish during brain development in early life stages caused the emergence of hyperactive behaviours in later life stages. Further, a decrease in the breakdown of fat was found after BPA or BPS treatment in mice, while BPS also increased glucose uptake and leptin production, suggesting that both BPA and BPS are involved in obesity and fatty liver.

Both free and metabolised BPA have been reported in human urine, and BPS has been reported in 81% of human urine samples from the U.S., as well as several Asian countries, showing its increased environmental presence and persistence. Metabolism and excretion pathways for the bisphenol analogues resemble that of BPA. BPA and its analogues are metabolised both through phase 1 liver detoxification, and mainly through the sulfation and glucuronidation pathways of phase 2 liver detoxification. To a lesser extent, various analogues can also be metabolised in the small intestine. Metabolism, in some cases, helps to reduce the toxicity of a substance, and accelerate its elimination from the body. However, some metabolites of BPA and its analogues have been shown to have similar endocrine disrupting actives as the pre-metabolised forms of bisphenols. Some of the hormone disrupting effects of these metabolites occur when the liver is functioning efficiently, however some can occur as a result of the detoxification pathways functioning inefficiently. Therefore, supporting the body’s detoxification pathways to ensure the metabolites are removed as quickly and efficiently from the body as possible will help to reduce the already toxic load of the bisphenol analogues and their metabolites.

So, What Can I Do?

Supporting phase 1 and especially the sulfation and glucuronidation pathways of phase 2 liver detoxification is a good way to ensure that the toxins can be metabolised as efficiently as possible from the body. General tips for looking after your liver include: eating organic food, avoiding artificial flavours and preservatives, avoiding hydrogenated fats, using cold pressed oils, avoiding alcohol, not smoking, avoiding charred meat, and saturated animal fats in large quantities. Foods that can help the liver include things like beetroot, artichoke, brassica family foods (cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, bok choy, watercress, mustard, horseradish, turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi), limonene-containing foods (citrus peel, dill weed oil, caraway oil), high quality proteins (meat, oily fish and eggs or vegetable protein, such as nuts and legumes), sulfur rich vegetables (radish, garlic and onions), asparagus, papaya, watermelon, avocados, kiwi fruit, capsicum, brazil nuts, and turmeric. To specifically support the sulfation and glucuronidation pathway, avoid smoking, yellow food dye (tartrazine), and medications such as the oral contraceptive pill and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (e.g. aspirin).

It is also important to support the elimination of toxins from the body, which happens via the kidneys and the bowels. Ensuring adequate hydration, as well and increasing the intake of high fibre foods such as whole grains, psyllium, flax seeds, legumes, fruit and vegetables, cold cooked potatoes, pasta and rice, and foods high in fructooligosaccharides such as beetroot, snow peas and butternut pumpkin, as well as including fermented foods in the diet, will help to binds toxins and eliminate them through the GI tract, as well as supporting your gut bacteria. Gut bacteria are independently able to metabolize toxins, and the microbial community is also affected from exposure to bisphenols, therefore supporting the growth of good gut bacteria through diet is a beneficial way to decrease the toxic load on your body.

As bisphenols can have negative effects on our health though direct toxic effects to our body, as well as their ability to interfere with our gut bacteria, the best option is to try to avoid substances containing bisphenol analogues. However, given that the presence of many bisphenol analogues are found in the environment, as well as foodstuffs, consumer products, and in humans themselves, this suggests a large scale and potentially a global contamination trend, meaning it is impossible to avoid exposure to bisphenols altogether. However, limiting your exposure to plastics and canned goods is a helpful start in keeping your exposure levels to ones that the body is able to handle and detoxify. In general, limiting your exposure to plastics provides further health benefits above and beyond bisphenol exposure, as bisphenols are one of many harmful chemicals found in plastics. Things such as phthalates, which are widely used in flexible plastics and consumer products, have also become ubiquitous contaminants worldwide, with research showing that they are also able to cause developmental toxicity, and estrogenic endocrine disruption.

What’s The Alternative?

Given the pervasive presence of bisphenols in the environment, it is almost impossible to avoid contact with them. However, it is possible to minimize your exposure, which will in turn help take the load off your detoxification processes and further help your body to efficiently remove bisphenols from your system as you encounter them. Your body is quite efficient at metabolizing and excreting bisphenols, so it is continued exposure that does the most harm. If you continue to store food in plastics, be sure that you don’t heat the food in plastic, as this speeds up the transfer of chemicals into the food. The best solution, however, is to avoid using plastics and cans altogether, and minimizing your contact with receipts. Only take receipts when you really need them, and if it is possible to buy food in glass rather than in a can, then this is the best option. Being aware of the plastics in your life will also help you in replacing them with better options. Simple things, like replacing plastic chopping boards and cooking utensils with wood and stainless steel, toothbrushes and cotton buds with bamboo alternatives, and reusing glass coffee cups instead of takeaway cups with plastic lids will all help.

As for storing food, there are many options other than plastic containers. All storage containers come with risks of exposure to chemicals, however these risks are generally very low, so the goal is to minimize harm, rather than eliminate it. Stainless steel is considered safe for storing food, with minimal chemical transfer between the container and the food. However, nickel and chromium can still be transferred to food when the stainless steel is heated, and the amount transferred is dependent on the steel grade, cooking time, pH of the food and cookware usage. Therefore, always ensure to get food grade stainless steel of the following grades 1.4401/1.4404 (316 types) or 1.4301 (304 types – this is also known as 18-8, the most commonly sold for food containers). Be aware, however, that these grades still transfer nickel and chromium into the food, however in levels lower than the Specific Release Limits, meaning that it is safe to use as a food contract material.

Glass is also a good alternative to using plastic. It can release aluminum when heated at high temperatures (>120°C), however this is also dependent on the pH of the food, and nutrients and amino acids contained within the food. At ambient temperatures, glass is relatively inert, and therefore safe for storage. The main problem with most glass containers is the lids. The lids of glass jars are lined with bisphenol analogues, and the purpose built storage containers still have plastic lids, listed as ‘BPA free’ and therefore most likely containing bisphenol analogues. Silicone and natural rubber are popular alternatives for plastic lids, however they are not without risk either. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified the “Occupational exposures in the rubber-manufacturing industry” as carcinogenic to humans, and studies have found a severe cytotoxic response to both extracts of natural rubber latex materials and contact with natural rubber latex gloves. Silicone has also been found to accumulate in human tissues in certain instances, and may pose a risk for human health by interfering with the endocrine system. These studies on rubber and silicone relate to medical grade equipment, and hence the results may not be transferrable to the products used for food storage, however it is important to still be smart about what you choose to use. Until there is definitive research on these products, you can’t be sure of their safety either way. All this being said, if your food doesn’t touch the lids of your containers, and you remove the lids before heating, then there is a minimal risk towards your health in using these products.

Replacing cling wrap and dry food packaging with fabric wraps and bags is an alternative option to storing things in plastic. However, all fabric is not created equally, and even organically grown cottons still go through a plethora of chemical processing steps such as dyeing, bleaching and finishing to create a finished product. These steps can involve the use of heavy metals, formaldehyde, azo dyes, benzidine or chlorine bleach, even on ‘organically grown cotton’, as the certification only applies to the growing, and not the post-processing. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification that traces fabrics from field to finish, taking into account the chemicals used in growing and processing, as well as the environmental and social impact. This ensures that buying under the GOTS certification means fabric materials are grown and processed with minimal toxic input, biodegradable chemicals, and safe and fair work conditions. More information about the GOTS standard can be found here: http://www.global-standard.org/. One such cling wrap alternative which is GOTS certified is Bee Wrappy (https://www.beewrappy.com.au/products/organic-cotton-4-pack-premium-reusable-natural-beeswax-food-covers), an Australian made safe and sustainable food wrap product.

Ultimately we live in a modern, progressive world, which despite many people’s grievances has provided us with the means to live a long, healthy and convenient life. Being aware of how to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals will benefit your long term health. However limiting your circumstances to the point of stress, or obsession, can have more of a negative impact on your long term health than the chemical you were limiting yourself from in the first place. The point is to minimize your exposure to the bad, so you have more time and energy for the good. The tips listed in this article for protecting yourself from the detrimental effect of BPA analogues are also relevant for looking after yourself, and the world you live in, in general. Limiting your use of plastics and disposable packaging, supporting your body’s detoxification pathways by minimizing processed foods, alcohol, smoking, unnecessary medications, excessive sugar, salt, saturated fats and over-eating in general, and increasing your intake of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes and good quality proteins will all help your short term and long term health. Ensuring that you drink plenty of water, stay active, cut out stress by enjoying yourself in the moment, believe in something and find a reason to get out of bed each day, and spend time with those you love as often as you can are all equally as important as reducing your chemical exposure for a long and happy life. Don’t approach the world with fear, approach it with knowledge, and an understanding of what sits right with the decisions you have made.

This article was mainly summarized from the following research review:

Chen, D, Kannan, K, Tan, H, Zheng, Z, Feng, YL, Wu, Y & Widelka, M 2016, ‘Bisphenol Analogues Other Than BPA: Environmental Occurrence, Human Exposure, and Toxicity-A Review’, Environ Sci Technol, vol. 50, pp. 5438-5453.

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