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BPA for Dinner?

It's toxic, but it's still in our food


BPA for Dinner?

BPA is a synthetic chemical that’s been linked to breast and prostate cancer, among other things. And it lurks in canned foods!

You won’t find many canned foods in Rick Smith’s pantry. That’s because the executive director of Environmental Defence and the father of two young kids is all too aware of the health hazards of bisphenol A (BPA).

Found in the lining of countless food and beverage containers—including those geared specifically to children—BPA is a synthetic chemical that’s been linked to breast and prostate cancer, among other health problems.

What it’s used for

Also called 2,2-bis(4-hydroxyphenyl) propane, BPA is used to make epoxy resins, which are used in everything from hockey helmets to car parts. In the protective linings of metal lids and containers for foods and drinks, including those for beer, pop, infant formula, baby food, vegetables, fruit, and ready-made meals, it prevents the corrosion of metal and the contamination of food from dissolved metal and helps preserve food.

However, the fact that BPA is still found in food-can linings in Canada is striking, since the federal government banned its use in plastic baby bottles in 2010, declaring the substance “toxic.”

BPA is not necessary

“The no-brainer of BPA continues to be that it’s not necessary,” says Smith on the line from the Toronto-based Environmental Defence, a national nonprofit organization. “You can easily make baby bottles without this chemical, and you can easily make canned foods without this chemical.

“BPA is one of the most commonly man-made chemicals in the world; billions of pounds of this stuff are made every year,” he adds. “It’s ubiquitous. But the application where it’s really a problem is when it’s made into food and beverage packaging. When it comes in contact with food or drink, then leaches in those items, it’s ingested.”

The evidence

As well as certain types of cancer, BPA has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, reproductive dysfunction, diabetes, and neurological and behavioural disorders.

Pregnant women, infants, and young children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of BPA.

In 2008 Health Canada sampled 99 baby-food products in glass jars with metal lids to determine levels of BPA. Small amounts were found in all of them, from organic carrots and strained chicken-noodle dinners to mixed fruit with oatmeal and organic mixed vegetables.

Health Canada maintains that the nutritional benefits of baby-food products far outweigh any possible risks.

The official position

The federal body concluded that dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging is “not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants.”

But the federal government has also stated that the substance is “entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity.”

And Health Canada has stated that because of “uncertainty” raised in some animal studies relating to the potential negative health effects of low levels of BPA, it recommends that the principle of “ALARA” (as low as reasonably achievable) be applied to limit BPA exposure from food packaging applications to infants and newborns, a “sensitive” segment of the population.

Concern for kids

As Smith puts it, kids are not little adults. In fact, they’re particularly susceptible to the consequences of toxins. Children’s exposures begin at conception, when chemicals such as BPA cross the placenta in a pregnant woman’s body and can affect the embryo or fetus during critical periods of development.

“Kids are susceptible because their brains are developing, their cells are dividing,” he says. “There are any number of growth processes going on in their body that are very prone to being disrupted by synthetic chemicals.”

Disruptions to their hormonal systems during development can set the stage for later-life diseases such as breast cancer and prostate cancer.

“It’s very important that kids in particular are shielded from as much pollution as possible. There are hundreds of different hormonally active chemicals floating around the environment, all of which have some biological effect in our body; BPA is only one of them. That’s why eliminating BPA in cans so important.

“The bad news is we’re all being exposed. The good news is we can easily pinpoint the problem. The solution is a no-brainer, so we need to get to it, because BPA is only part of a much larger picture.”

Global efforts to ban BPA

Around the globe the push to ban BPA in food and beverage containers is growing.

JapanJapan has made concerted efforts to reduce BPA exposure. In response to consumers’ demands, industries there voluntarily lowered the use of BPA dramatically between 1998 and 2003. “Consequently we see lower levels of BPA in the Japanese population,” Smith notes.

United StatesSeveral states in the US have passed bills banning BPA. “Some North American food manufacturers are taking voluntary steps to use alternatives to BPA because of consumers’ concerns,” Smith adds.

Industry-driven change

Even in advance of government regulation, major manufacturers are changing their practices,” Smith says. “They’re ahead of the curve.” Substitute linings include polyester-based linings, such as thermoplastic polyester coatings or plant oil-based linings. Packaging such as glass and Tetra Pak cartons are also void of BPA.

Smith is optimistic that Canada’s food supply will soon be BPA-free.

“I have no doubt that within a few years BPA is going to be out of food cans,” Smith says. “The writing is on the wall.

“We always suggest people act as informed consumers and as informed citizens as well,” he adds. “It’s important that decision makers hear from people who have concerns about these things. Email Health Canada asking for better restrictions, because ultimately it’s better regulation that’s needed here.

“We shouldn’t have to be chemical engineers when we go to the grocery store.”

Keeping BPA out of your kitchen, yourself, and your kids

  • Always choose canned goods that are clearly labelled BPA free.
  • Look for products that don’t use BPA in their containers; companies that are using alternatives are likely to advertise this on their labels.
  • If you use conventional canned goods, note that some canned-food products are worse than others: the highest levels of BPA are in coconut milk, soups, meats, vegetables, meals (such as pasta dishes), beans, canned juices, and canned fish.
  • Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of conventional canned varieties.
  • Check the plastic containers you use at home: those with BPA tend to be either coloured or clear transparent items and have the number 7 on them.
  • Contact your favourite food manufacturers directly and ask them to use safe alternatives to BPA.


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