BPA: lurking danger in our food supply?

As a member of Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA), I have just received the 'Fact Sheet on Bisphenol A', compiled by Dr Carl Albrecht, Head of Research at CANSA, which was issued in August 2010. The Fact Sheet makes scary reading indeed. Because of the seriousness of the negative health effects linked to bisphenol A, an industrial chemical widely used in a multiplicity of global applications, this is a subject the public in South Africa need to know about.

Historical background

Bisphenol A (BPA) which was first synthesised in 1891 as an 'artificial oestrogen', was initially intended to be used as a synthetic oestrogen to prevent miscarriages. BPA is a powerful oestrogen disruptor which binds to the oestrogen receptors in human cells causing the normal oestrogen hormone to function in abnormal ways. BPA was never used as a synthetic oestrogen, but by 1930 a chemical compound called polycarbonate made from BPA and phosgene, was produced for the first time. Polycarbonate is used to produce plastic and epoxy resins and BPA is also a component of PVC. These are all products that are nowadays used in vast quantities for thousands of applications. According to Albrecht, the global production of BPA in 2003 was 2.2 million metric tonnes, which translates into 328gr for every person on earth per year.

BPA in the food chain

We are, therefore, surrounded by products that contain BPA. In the food chain, we come into contact with BPA in the form of polycarbonate which is used to produce baby bottles and cups, food containers, water coolers, printing on certain cash receipts, coating of metal cans, and as a pollutant in drinking water. The latter then in turn contaminates crops and animal products with BPA.

Health hazards of BPA exposure

As an oestrogen disruptor, it is logical that constant exposure to BPA will have a variety of negative health effects. BPA has been linked to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, early puberty, obesity, infertility in both men and women, brain and thyroid dysfunction, heart disease, and diabetes. Exposure to BPA during pregnancy is particularly harmful because according to Albrecht, "it permanently silences critical genes during development in the womb with as yet unknown consequences," and increases the risk of breast cancer because BPA stimulates genes that promote the growth of cells in the mammary glands. In addition, the exposure of children to BPA via baby bottles and cups, especially when heated (this releases up to 55% more BPA), is regarded as a serious health hazard.

Albrecht's study of the scientific literature has shown that more than 100 publications in the period 1997-2008, have linked exposure to low levels of BPA (25 times lower than the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 'safe dose of 50 microgram per kg body weight per day) to reduction in testosterone levels, changes in breast and prostate tissue making the cells vulnerable to carcinogens and susceptible to cancer, and behavioural problems.

What are governments doing about the BPA problem?

Faced with the ever increasing number of studies that indicate that BPA is potentially toxic and probably carcinogenic, particularly to children and pregnant women, some governments have already reacted to protect their populations against these risks. Canada led the way in 2008, by declaring BPA toxic and proposing a ban of polycarbonate baby bottles. Based on fears that BPA may inhibit learning in children, Denmark enacted a ban on all food contact materials used by children up to the age of 3 years, including baby bottles, containing polycarbonate which came into effect in July 2010. Similar bans have been enacted or proposed in Belgium, France and certain states in the USA, such as New York, which banned the sale of baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers (dummies) and straws made of plastic containing BPA.

The EPA and FDA in America and the European Food Safety Authority are currently investigating the problem of BPA and are expected to publish their findings and recommendations by the end of November this year.

In South Africa, the Department of Health has requested that the industry should voluntarily remove BPA from baby bottles.

So far, one manufacturer of baby bottles, namely the NUK Company, has removed BPA from its baby products and earned itself the first 'Seal of Recognition as a Smart Choice' by CANSA (2010). Hopefully other manufacturers of products that come into contact with food intended for babies, and adults as well, will follow suit. The food manufacturing industry has generally responded rapidly to findings that a food product or in this case, a packaging product, poses a health risk, by eliminating the source of the problem. Trans fatty acids are an example: when scientists found that trans fatty acids are harmful to health, reputable food manufacturers responded by either removing all trans fatty acids from affected foods or reducing the trans fatty acid content of products like margarine, to trace amounts which are well below the safe level for human consumption.


What can we as parents do to protect our children and ourselves against BPA?

At the moment the public in South Africa are dependent on our Department of Health to also enact legislation to ban BPA in all products that come into contact with food intended for babies and young children. We can also avoid using baby bottles and cups, which do not have the CANSA Seal of Recognition or an international safety symbol which indicates that these products are free of BPA. Until the packaging industry comes up with a safe solution, we can, when possible, avoid purchasing foods packaged in cans, unless the cans are not lined with a BPA-coating.

Some tips that may help to protect you and your family against BPA contamination:

  • Avoid heating up polycarbonate baby bottles in the microwave or by boiling. Rather sterilise the bottles with Milton or a similar sterilising liquid.
  • Do not heat food in polycarbonate plastic containers in the microwave.
  • Avoid buying plastic containers that are marked with a number 7 inside a triangle and the letter PC, which indicates polycarbonate.

As regards our drinking water, which in Gauteng and elsewhere is exposed to the threat of acid mine water and other serious pollutants, we can but hope that the authorities will clean up our water supplies, sooner rather than later.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, September 2010)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


(Albrecht C. 2010. Fact Sheet on Bisphenol A. Published by CANSA, August 2010; CANSA 2010. BPA-free baby bottles get CANSA Seal of Recognition. Media Release by CANSA, 11 August 2010; CGCSA 2010. BPA baby bottles. Media Statement issued by the Consumer Goods Council of SA, 12 August 2010.)

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