Sept. 16, 2008 -- An ubiquitous ingredient in plastics has been linked to diabetes and heart disease in adults, according to a study being released today, heightening concerns about the widespread use of the chemical BPA.
Otherwise known as bisphenol A, BPA is the chemical once studied as a synthetic form of estrogen, but more recently known to leach out of some plastic water bottles and baby bottles, and that is found in all kinds of plastic products.
"We're talking about pacifiers, sippy cups, spoons, the bath toys, the chew toys ... everything," said Sommer Poquette, mother of two toddlers and author of the blog Green and Clean Mom.
"It's hard to get a BPA-free product," said Poquette.
The concerns of people like Poquette will likely be heightened by a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which researchers found a connection between BPA and diabetes and heart disease in adults. Scientists reviewed the health of 1,455 American adults and found that people with higher concentrations of BPA in their urine were slightly more likely to have heart disease and diabetes.
The researchers also estimate that most Americans are exposed to a higher level of BPA each day than the current Environmental Protection Agency recommendation.
In an accompanying editorial, Frederick S. vom Saal and John Peterson Myers take the government to task, asking the United States and Europe to follow Canada's lead and regulate BPA.
"The FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have chosen to ignore warnings from expert panels and other government agencies and have continued to declare BPA 'safe,'" wrote the authors.
The release of the study comes on the same day that the Food and Drug Administration's Science Board will have an open meeting about BPA.
Stephanie Kwisnek, a spokeswoman for the FDA, said the meeting is being held "in part, to listen to comment from the public." However, members of the medical profession and the public are already at odds over what to do with the information.
Avoid BPA, Label BPA, or Just Study It
"If this does not close the door on the use of BPA in consumer products, I don't know what will," said Dr. John Spangler, professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Until now, Spangler said the most well-known research done on BPA confirmed that the chemical could damage rats and monkeys. But those studies could only hint at danger in people, since humans may process BPA differently than animals.
On that current evidence, the FDA decided in April of this year to not label BPA as dangerous.
"At this time, FDA is not recommending that anyone discontinue using products that contain BPA while the agency continues its safety assessment process," Kwisnek said.
While today's JAMA study was one of the largest BPA studies done in humans, it could only provide convincing circumstantial evidence that, where high levels of BPA lurked, so do diabetes and poor heart health. The study's authors wrote that their work could not definitively prove that BPA had a part in causing the diseases.
For some scientists, that's not enough to convince them that governments should begin regulating BPA in products.
"This type of research is valuable to point to potential toxins in the environment -- only further studies will confirm if this is a concern or not," said Dr. Gordon Ewy, chief of cardiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, Ariz.
However, Spangler and other doctors don't agree with the cautious watch and wait approach when it comes to chemicals.
"There has always been an argument, similar to the tobacco companies' arguments, that a link between this product and adverse health outcomes 'has not been proven,'" Spangler said.
Stanford University School of Medicine professor of health research and policy, Dr. John Farquhar, agreed.
"Cigarette use was not proven to be harmful through evidence gained via a randomized clinical trial -- the gold standard for proof in clinical medicine," said Farquhar. "But through numerous associative studies that were complemented by animal and cell culture studies.
"In issues of human safety, an agent which can be avoided and which has no redeeming features is 'guilty until proven otherwise,'" he said.
For many moms in Poquette's circle, that hint of danger was enough.
"It was actually a few years ago. My father told me not to use the plastic Advent baby bottles," said Poquette. "At first, I didn't believe him ... but you have to do some research and make some decisions of what is going to work for your family."
Once Poquette decided to avoid BPA, she discovered a trip to the grocery store became a lot more complicated. Manufacturers don't have to label goods that contain BPA unless the FDA requires it.
"I don't think you're going to get everything out, but you can take steps," said Poquette.
Step number one: Check with online advocates. Poquette recommends reading TheSoftLanding.com for information on products with BPA. Or, people at the store can just text the product into the Z-Recommends texting service and quickly learn whether a product contains BPA.
Step number two: Just eliminate products that are likely to have BPA.
"We have definitely have limited what we drink out of," Poquette said. Now, her family uses glass and stainless steel water bottles. "We just try to limit the canned food that we do buy and just eat as fresh as possible."
Regardless of whether the FDA will decide to regulate BPA, doctors say the practice of avoiding foods that come in plastic containers or plastic-lined cans may have even more important health implications than BPA exposure.
"Unfortunately, in this country, I don't think BPAs in food containers pose a fraction of the threat to heart health as most of the food products that they contain," said Dr. Daniel Edmundowicz, director of Cardiovascular Medicine at UPMC Passavant Hospital in Pittsburg, Pa.
"Said another way -- I think the BPAs in a container of butter pose less risk than than butter itself," Edmundowicz said.