Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles may have been worth freaking out about -- the exposure of this endocrine disruptor to such developing bodies was an unconscionable risk. But that's really just a small part of our collective cultural exposure to this chemical (and a host of others, only a tiny minority of whose effects have been studied); every time we open a can of food, we're endangering ourselves and our children, born and unborn. A report out Thursday is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the news about chemicals and their effect on humans who are constantly exposed to them, especially the very little. Its money phrase: "to a disturbing extent, babies are born 'pre-polluted.'"
In the beginning of the report of the President's Cancer Panel, a letter to Obama reads, "With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread. One such ubiquitous chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), is still found in many consumer products and remains unregulated in the United States, despite the growing link between BPA and several diseases, including various cancers." Yet this chemical is found in the epoxy resin lining of nearly every canned food on the market -- including each and every last can of tomatoes, even the organic ones. The reasoning is (sort of) innocent: the lining prevents the acids in the foods from oxidizing the metals in the can, and we've known for decades how damaging heavy metals can be, especially on developing bodies. The upshot is not innocent at all: about 2 billion pounds of BPA is manufactured in the U.S. every year, and it was found in the urine of 93% of adults and children tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though it metabolizes quickly.
No, it's not just those people drinking water out of the now-feared hard plastic containers like Nalgene bottles, and liquids out of the once-ubiquitous plastic baby bottle, who have BPA in their systems; everyone who eats food out of a can is exposed. No matter if you've got a hummus made from canned organic garbanzo beans and raw tahini, or Chef Boyardee eaten cold straight out of the can, BPA is there (present in the food) and there (in your bloodstream). And as Emily Dwass at Fair Warning pointed out, "although babies now may be given a BPA-free bottle, the drink itself could contain the chemical, which has been found to leach out of cans and into liquid infant formula."
So, there's the cancer risk -- breast and prostrate cancer especially, given the hormone mimicking of endocrine disrupters. Some scientists say that BPA can increase risk of heart disease and diabetes, and others point to concerns about neurological and behavior problems. This last bit is unusually worrisome for me; I have three very smart and sweet little boys who all have behavior problems ranging from irritating but functional to crippling-can't-send-him-to-public-school. Nothing appears to be wrong with them, disorder-wise; I've been feeding myself and them out of BPA-lined bottles and can after grocery store can up until two and a half years ago, when I got real food religion.
It could be too late; according to the President's Cancer Panel, 300 contaminants have been detected in umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, and studies show it is in the first three months of a baby's time in its mother's womb that the worst effects of maternal chemical exposure are visited on children. Instead of freaking about those martinis I drank one night before I realized I was pregnant with my first son, I should have worried about that yummy pasta sauce I made with two bigs cans of Trader Joe's tomatoes a couple of times a week during my pregnancy.
And not just the tomatoes, the kidney beans, and the Campbell's soup; according to organic chemist John C. Warner, the BPA in cash register receipts is far worse. As ScienceNews reports, Warner says, "When people talk about polycarbonate bottles, they talk about nanogram quantities of BPA [leaching out]. The average cash register receipt that's out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA." In other words, a receipt has thousands of times the quantity of BPA that is present in your canned food and can be a major source for exposure of children (how many times have I handed a receipt to my child to hold as I grabbed my grocery bags?).
Senator Dianne Feinstein has been working for many months now to ban BPA in consumer food and drink packaging, and now pledges to include the prohibitions in the food safety bill when it is debated in the Senate. "I introduced my bill to ban BPA from being used in food containers because I feel very strongly that the government should protect people from harmful chemicals," Feinstein said in a statement.
Of course, the easiest way around BPA, while we're waiting for the U.S. government to protect us, is to steer clear of grocery stores. Good old-fashioned glass jars -- like the ones I now use to can my own garden's produce and the many dozen pounds of tomatoes I buy from the farmer's market each year -- don't contain a spot of BPA, nor any other chemical that's known to leach. While the lids sold by most major manufacturers (Ball and Kerr, for instance) do contain BPA, it's now possible to buy lids without the chemical (whose added bonus is that they're reusable, even more neatly reducing your packaging waste).
At the risk of sounding not-the-good-kind-of radical, this is only more evidence for me that one's safest bet is to reduce one's exposure to the grocery store as much as possible; buying mostly whole foods and going more directly to the farmer whenever possible. Through buying clubs, farmer's markets and food co-ops, I find I'm able to get lovely, organic, nutritious foods for a pretty great price without the heavy processing and chemicals. And preserving is my new art form.
Yes, there are hundreds of chemicals which may also pose some danger to you and your children; these most definitely include pesticides and could include others we used to consider benign. I can't say that BPA is the one and only most dangerous substance worthy of avoidance. Should you stop buying canned food altogether? It seems extreme, but for me it's been part of a gateway into a far more nourishing and exciting food life. And, as I'll write shortly, in the long run you can save money eating this way. In my opinion, the trade-off; convenience for a great expense in both finances and health; is not worth making.
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