(This is the second in a two-part series on BPA. The first, which outlines what BPA is and what it can do to the body, is here.)
Journalist Susan Freinkel conceived an experiment where she would not touch plastic for a day. She woke up, couldn’t sit on the toilet seat (because it was plastic), and realized she’d better revise the plan – she wrote down each plastic thing she touched instead.
There is simply no way to avoid contact with all plastics any more. They are ubiquitous and in many ways, they have made our lives easier and safer. But they also have negative consequences our lives – they contain chemicals (like BPA) that may make us sick or contribute to making us sick, and cause environmental damage we don’t fully understand: there’s an area in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between the size of Texas and twice the size of the Continental U.S. (depending on what density of plastic counts as ‘the edge’) where plastic particles are suspended in the upper water column in an enormous Garbage Patch.
It’s images like these that convince many people to try to use less plastic – a bird that starved to death because its stomach was full of plastic it mistook for food.
Beth Terry saw one of those photos and was moved to cut as much plastic out of her life as she could. Beth produced 3.7 lbs of plastic trash in 2009 – just 4% of the American average. She tries to avoid using any plastic at all if she can help it. For those of you who read Susan Freinkel’s book and were convinced to try to use less plastic in your lives, Beth’s book tells you how to do it. It’s full of helpful suggestions for alternatives to items commonly made out of plastic; many of which I didn’t previously know existed. She has a blog, too, if you want the quick version.
(Susan Freinkel and Beth Terry’s books. I had intended to take a photo of my plastic-covered library copies with their BPA-slathered receipts but I returned them before I remembered to do it.)
The main problem I have with this approach is that it doesn’t consider the true environmental or even human health impact of the choice – it rests on the assumption that all plastic is bad, when in fact there are some cases when using plastic is actually the choice that reduces environmental and even human health impacts the most. Which brings me to the hard part in all of this: sometimes what’s best for me as a person is not the same thing that’s best for the environment or even for other people in other parts of the world.
An example: Tupperware. According to the company, all Tupperware made since 2010 is BPA free. What that tells me is that before 2010 at least some Tupperware did contain BPA and it’s probably highly likely that the post-2010 model contains BPS or BPF, chemicals that do the same thing for plastics that BPA did and that also have the same potentially harmful human health impacts. If you want to limit your exposure to endocrine disruptors, avoiding Tupperware is probably a good way to do it.
But if your house is like mine, those containers seem to have legs. We always have more lids than containers and I have to buy several new sets every few months, because we just can’t seem to keep track of them all. I couldn’t find a life cycle assessment (a way to quantify the environmental and human health impacts from raw material extraction through manufacturing, consumer use, and disposal) on Tupperware and comparable glass or stainless steel containers. I did find one comparing Nalgene bottles with Kleen Kanteens (it’s a school project, so not peer-reviewed) which supports my intuition from having done similar studies – it seems very likely that I would have to use a glass/steel container more times than a Tupperware to have the equivalent environmental impact, and what if I lose the glass/steel container before I hit that magic threshold? I might have avoided my own exposure to BPA but what if I created more greenhouse gases or more of other kinds of pollutants that hurt the people who live in places where the glass/steel containers are made instead?
So, which to pick? My health, or the planet’s? My interests, or everyone else’s?
For someone who works in the sustainability field (like I do), these choices can be almost humorously paralyzing – not because I don’t have the data to make a decision, but because most of the time I can find the data, analyze it, understand the Catch-22 I’m in, and have to laugh at it. It also leads to some complicated purchasing decisions that by now I’ve mostly reduced to habit, but I thought you might find my thought process helpful.
This is my personal decision tree that I use to balance concerns about my health with concerns about the health of others. You may always come down on the side of prioritizing your health, so you might choose to put your kindergartener’s lunch in a glass container even if you lose them on a weekly basis. Or alternatively you might choose to always prioritize the lowest overall environmental impact, regardless of the human health outcomes. Any of these are valid choices, as long as they are conscious choices made with the benefit of hard data. So my decision process for BPA is as follows:
- Avoid BPA where you can
If there’s a product I know has BPA in it, I avoid it I don’t have to take something else to do so. A good example: Cash register and credit card receipts printed on ‘thermal paper’ are coated with BPA powder, which helps the ink develop. The BPA in a can is bound up and a little might leach out; the BPA on this receipt paper is essentially a free substance that can quite easily come off on your hands, and from there be absorbed through the skin, or be transferred onto food or directly into your mouth.
I don’t take receipts in stores unless there’s a chance I’ll return the item; I don’t have to choose an alternative so it’s a win-win. Emailed store receipts are not without drawbacks (from an energy use perspective but also because you’re just asking for junk mail) but are another option in some cases. You can tell if your store receipt has BPA in it because the paper will darken when you scratch it with your fingernail or a coin.
2. Choose the product with the lower environmental impact, and minimize BPA exposure
If I have to choose between a product containing BPA (or a replacement chemical) and a product not containing BPA (or a replacement chemical) and the one that does contain BPA has a lower overall environmental impact, I’ll choose that one and will take steps to minimize my exposure to BPA. So I don’t heat food in Tupperware (and neither should you). As silentspring.org puts it, ‘the label “microwave safe” means safety for the container, not your health’.
3. Avoid BPA entirely where you gain significant additional benefit by doing so
I’ll choose to actively avoid BPA (and plastics more generally) if I get a significant extra benefit from doing it. I can my own tomatoes (in glass jars), partly to avoid the BPA in cans, partly because they taste better, and partly because I enjoy doing it. If we must eat canned food I look for a BPA-free label, although I assume that this does not mean the can is free of BPA-alternatives – it’s usually the organic brands that use BPA-free cans, so the additional benefit of the organic contents offsets some of the likely additional cost.
4. Cook your own fresh food (which, I suppose, should really be a subset of (3))
An (admittedly small) study found that a three day ‘fresh food intervention’ could reduce BPA in study participants’ urine by 65%. During the intervention participants received foods that had not been packaged in cans or plastic and were prepared without using plastic utensils and non-stick coated cookware. They were given stainless steel water bottles and lunch containers, and to drink coffee from a french press (coffee machines can have BPA in the tubes). Three days; 65% – that’s a big deal!
5. Reduce the amount of plastic your kids come into contact with
This is a hard one, as items made for kids tend to be made of plastic because it doesn’t break. We try to give Carys a wide array of wood and metal toys. I made her a set of 250 maple blocks, a wooden climbing triangle, a bamboo and canvas teepee, a set of (formaldehyde-free!) plywood storage boxes, a wooden slide, and her favorite ‘toy’ at the moment is a baking tray filled with beans and oats that she spoons into other metal containers. But she also has a Duplo set, a lot of plastic hand-me-down bath toys, and a giant polycarbonate water bottle (the kind you tip upside down to set on a cooler) that she likes to put things into and then push around the house. We could get rid of those things, but have you met my husband? Creating that much space in the house would just fuel more purchases, some of which would inevitably be plastic. Carys does eat using ceramic plates, metal cutlery, and drinks from a real glass so at least we are minimizing the most obvious food exposure routes.
The (industry-funded) FactsAboutBPA.org notes that BPA is rapidly processed by the body and does not bioaccumulate, and I could find no evidence anywhere else either to show that it does bioaccumulate. But because BPA is so ubiquitous it enters our bodies on a continual basis as fast as it leaves – which is why more than 90% of Americans tested have traces of it in their bodies (I’m curious as to where the other 10% live…). This is also why the fresh food intervention was so successful – the choices made today have a significant impact in just a few days. It’s not like quitting smoking, where you have to wait 15-20 years for your risk of heart attack to be the same as that of a non-smoker. Instant gratification!
You will never be able to completely eliminate BPA from your life. It is all around us in a variety of applications you may never have considered, including protective and corrective eyewear (safety and regular glasses), CDs and DVDs (perhaps less exposure via these routes nowadays:-)), bike helmets, shin guards, goggles, coatings for steel furniture and garage doors, automotive parts, gardening tools and equipment, housings for cell phones, laptops, tablets, and handheld gaming consoles (Source: the industry-funded site FactsAboutBPA.org). The other 35% of BPA still in the study participants’ urine after the fresh food intervention is coming from somewhere; most likely a combination of these sources. If you’re not willing to give up your cell phone, you will come into contact with some BPA.
Reduced exposure > Worse health outcomes?
My final thought on BPA is one that is disturbing to me but I haven’t seen specifically addressed anywhere else, and it is this:
“Part of the problem with endocrine disruptors is they usually have a U-shaped dose response profile,” [Professor Deborah] Kurrasch [of the University of Calgary] says. “At very low doses they have activity and then as you increase the dose it drops in activity. Then at higher doses it has activity again.” (Source: Scientific American)
So what if the current dose of BPA that most people have in their bodies is actually at the bottom of the dose response profile (i.e. not much response), and that by reducing BPA in my diet I am pushing myself back up the left side of that U curve into a higher response/negative health impact? What if by attempting to achieve an improved health outcome I’m actually achieving a worse one?
There’s no way to know for sure so I attempt to reduce my exposure anyway, and try not to worry about it too much.