Exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals such as BPA, or bisphenol A, can be reduced significantly by eating fewer foods packaged in metal cans or plastic, according to a new report from the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute.
"I knew, of course, that these chemicals were in food packaging, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the decrease that we saw," said Ruthann Rudel, lead author of the study and director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit research organization named for Rachel Carson, whose book "Silent Spring" kicked off the modern environmental movement.
What Rudel and her colleagues found was that when fresh food -- not canned or packaged in plastic -- was given to 20 study participants over three days, the level of BPA and other chemicals in their systems dropped substantially.
On average there was 66 percent less BPA in their urine and a 53 to 56 percent decrease in the amount of DEHP, a plasticizer. When the participants returned to their normal eating habits, their levels of BPA and the DEHP compound spiked immediately.
While BPA is used to harden plastics and can also be found in paper receipts and the epoxy resin linings of food containers, DEHP is used to soften plastics and can be found in plastic food wrap.
"The take home from the study is that food packaging is where people are primarily exposed to these compounds," said Rudel. "Now we have a good estimate as to how food packaging contributes to our overall exposure and now we know how to reduce it. For a lot of exposure, that is not the case."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 90 percent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. The Food and Drug Administration's website states that "at this interim stage, FDA shares the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children."
Other studies have linked BPA and phthalates such as DEHP to infertility, heart disease and cancer, but there is still a debate over what levels of these chemicals are dangerous.
"There is outstanding health concerns about these chemicals, and while the health implications continue to be sorted out, there is an opportunity for individuals to reduce their exposure by making certain decisions," said Rudel.
In response to the study, the American Chemistry Council issued this statement:
"This study simply confirms these reassuring points: that consumers have minute exposures to BPA and DEHP from food sources, and that the substances do not stay in the body but are quickly eliminated through natural means. Additionally, data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Canada have shown that typical consumer exposure to BPA and DEHP, from all sources, is up to 1,000 times lower than government-established safe exposure levels.
"Consumers should feel confident that they can continue to eat healthy canned or packaged foods because materials intended for use in food contact are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."
The Silent Spring Institute has issued these tips to reduce exposure:
1. Fresh is best
BPA and phthalates can migrate from the linings of cans and plastic packaging into food and drinks. While it's not practical to avoid food packaging altogether, opt for fresh or frozen instead of canned food as much as possible.
2. Eat in
Studies have shown that people who eat more meals prepared outside the home have higher levels of BPA. To reduce exposure, consider cooking more meals at home with fresh ingredients. When you do eat out, choose restaurants that use fresh ingredients.
3. Store it safe
Food and drinks stored in plastic can collect chemicals from the containers, especially if the foods are fatty or acidic. Next time, try storing your leftovers in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic.
4. Don't microwave in plastic
Warmer temperatures increase the rate that chemicals leach into food and drinks. So use heat-resistant glass or ceramic containers when you microwave, or heat your food on the stove. The label "microwave safe" means safety for the container, not your health.
5. Brew the old-fashioned way
Automatic coffee makers may have BPA and phthalates in their plastic containers and tubing. When you brew your coffee, consider using a French press to get your buzz without the BPA.