Can a chemical, bisphenol A, lining the cans of many canned foods, increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes? According to two large medical studies, the answer is yes. One of the downsides of living in a technological world is that we are exposed to more man-made compounds than in the past. Unfortunately, a number of these man-made compounds may have negative effects on our health.
BPA is a man-made compound that is believed to disrupt a number of hormone systems. Over 2.2 million tons of BPA are introduced into our environment annually. It is commonly found as a lining in canned soft drinks and food, plastic containers and epoxy resins. We are exposed to BPA primarily through diet, water and by skin exposure (holding sales receipts). Research indicates that more than 90 percent of the U.S. population is regularly exposed to BPA.
Although more research is needed (taking decades), BPA has been associated with more than a few serious medical conditions. Most of the research has been in animals, but the results may be applicable to humans. BPA may increase the risk of several cancers, decrease memory, promote hypothyroidism, infertility, affect the growing fetus, cause erectile dysfunction and contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. BPA has an even greater effect on young children.
One study in 2008, comprised of about 1,500 people and published in the Journal of the American Association, strongly correlated BPA levels in the urine with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and elevated liver enzymes. A medical study in 2010 with almost 3,000 people confirmed the findings of the earlier study. Individuals with higher levels of BPA in their urine had strong associations with heart disease and diabetes. Heart disease and diabetes are in the top 10 causes of death.
BPA is used in canned food to protect the food from interacting with the metal can. It is very effective. However, there is little argument that BPA can influence certain disease processes. The question is "how much BPA is safe" and that answer varies depending on who you ask. Canada has banned BPA as a toxic compound, unfit for human consumption. Japan voluntarily discontinued the use of BPA and their children are virtually BPA free. Most of Europe has banned BPA from baby bottles, pacifiers, etc. In contrast, action by Congress/FDA has been anemic compared to the rest of the world. However, 11 states have banned BPA from baby bottles. Unfortunately, Illinois is not one of them.
Thousands of new products are introduced in the environment annually. Most have not been tested for toxicity. However, BPA is a known commodity. We can limit exposure and promote safer alternatives (like Japan). I recommend eating fresh or frozen foods, look for "BPA free" on cans (Trader Joe's leads the way), drink sodas, water and alcoholic beverages from glass bottles and limit handling of receipts.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. His website is www.alt-med.org.