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BPA: What is it, BPA free plastic and health effects

Bisphenol-A, BPA, is a compound that is found in plastics and thermal paper. High dosages have been linked to cancer, diabetes and infertility.

BPA free water bottles, food containers and baby bottles have seen a large increase in sales in the last few years. This increase is due to health-conscious consumers and a research report from the WHO that it can alter hormone function in otherwise healthy individuals.

Various doctors and experts claim that it is toxic to humans and has a large impact on both estrogen and testosterone levels.

Estrogen is the primary female sex hormone and testosterone the primary male sex hormone. Both these hormones are crucial to reproductive health and emotional functioning. Therefore, reducing our exposure to disrupting chemicals such as BPA can improve your health.

You may be wondering what BPA exactly is, where it comes from and what BPA free plastics are. This guide will explain that and much more.

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What is BPA?

BPA stands for Bisphenol-A, an industrial chemical that is used in the production of various plastics, coatings, make-up and as an ink-solvent in receipts.

BPA was discovered in 1891 by a Russian chemist named Alexander Diadin. In the 1950’s it was researched as a potential drug which acts on the estrogenic pathways in the human body. It has been industrially produced for the previously mentioned applications since 1957.

Chemically it looks similar to estrogen. The general shape is alike and the electronic distribution is close to that of estrogen, shown here on the right. Because of this similarity, researches are concerned that it can mimic the effects of estrogen.

Molecular structure of bisphenol-A.
Molecular structure of estrogen.

Most of the produced BPA is used in the production of PC plastics. These are plastics based on a molecule named Polycarbonate, BPA is one of the precursors.

Plastics

Polycarbonate is a transparent and hard plastic that is used primarily for unbreakable bottles, for Tupperware containers and microwave-proof containers and for example in home-appliances such as food-processors, fridges, food-steamers and washing machines.

Another application of BPA is in the production of epoxy resins. These resins are used as a protective coating for the inside of food packaging containers, cartons and tins. In addition to that, the coatings are used in pipes and storage tanks for drinking water.

Store receipts

BPA is also used as an ink for thermal paper, such as in receipts. A single layer of BPA is applied to receipt paper, upon heating, BPA turns black. This is one of the major exposures of BPA in humans.

The average cash register receipt that’s out there and uses the BPA technology will have 60 to 100 milligrams of free BPA.

John C. Warner. – chemist. Source.

Put in another way. We are exposed to large amounts of BPA on a daily basis. This comes from food packaging and containers, store receipts, water bottles and even your own fridge. This can potentially have effects on our hormones and health. Next, we dive into how BPA gets into the body.

How BPA gets into the body

Food

BPA enters the body through either the skin or food. When food or liquid packaging is made using polycarbonates (BPA-rich plastic) not all the BPA is contained in the material, there is some free BPA in the packaging. This then leaks into the food or liquid and upon consumption is taken up by the body.

Research has shown that BPA levels in urine are much higher than safety regulations allow. This is cause for concern because no long-term effects of high BPA exposure have been done on humans before.

In addition to the regular leakage of BPA into food, upon heating the BPA containing plastic, leeching rates into the food were increased.

This means that any meal-prep or microwavable plastic container with food in it will release a lot more BPA into the food upon heating it in the microwave. As a result, people who eat a lot of pre-packaged food or leftovers are exposed to higher levels of BPA.

Babies that were fed with bottles made out of BPA had up to 8 times higher BPA levels in their blood compared to breast-fed babies. This can potentially cause harmful effects in terms of development.

Skin

BPA also enters the body through skin exposure. Research has found that BPA from receipts enters the body and stays in the body for much longer compared to when BPA is ingested. The precise mechanism for why this happens is not completely clear.

The researchers found that people who routinely touch receipts that contain BPA had higher than average levels of BPA in their urine and blood. In addition to that, BPA levels were still elevated until long after the exposure.

The same paper showed that cashiers had up to 2.5 micrograms of BPA in their urine, compared to 1.2 micrograms for industrial workers. A 2 fold increase!

46% of the BPA that comes in contact with your skin gets absorbed into the body and distributed across your organs and brain. Here, it has the potential to disrupt the body’s natural state, called homeostasis, and alter bodily functions.

The next section covers how BPA can potentially disrupt your body’s functioning.

bpa infographic about how it enters the body

BPA health effects

Once BPA enters the body it can do a variety of things. This chapter will explain all the effects of BPA on the human body. This is a long section so grab a cup of tea and read along.

Cancer

BPA has been shown to play a role in hormone dependent tumours such as breast and prostate cancer. This is due to the hormonal effects of BPA. It has the potential to alter both prostate and breast cells in males and females, respectively.

The proposed mechanism is that BPA binds to the estrogen receptors on and causes genes to activate which alter specifically breast and prostate cells. Alterations in these cells can increase the chance of developing cancer.

In summary: BPA increases the chance of prostate and breast cancer by altering cells.

Low testosterone

BPA-exposed males have a consistently higher risk of male sexual dysfunction. A paper from 2009 showed that workers exposed to BPA had reduced sexual desire and erectile difficulty.

In addition to that, reduced sexual wellbeing was observed. These effects were found to be related to the total amount of exposed BPA.

Another study from the Environmental Health Perspect showed that BPA exposure leads to drastically lower levels of testosterone in otherwise healthy males.

Lastly, a 2013 study showed that BPA exposure increases the amount of testosterone that is converted to estrogen in healthy males. This is another factor that decreases the total available testosterone.

In summary: BPA decreases testosterone in otherwise healthy males. Lower testosterone can result in decreased muscle mass and lower sexual functioning.

Infertility

Scientists published a paper in 2013 stating that BPA can interfere with egg maturation in females. They showed that the higher the BPA content in the blood, the higher the chance of eggs not reaching maturation.

This means that exposure to higher levels of BPA increases the chance of being infertile. For females with an already genetic predeposition of being less fertile, high BPA exposure can reduce the chance of conceiving a child even further.

In addition to that, other research showed that BPA in concentrations of even 1 trillionth of a gram per liter induces gene-changing effects in cells with estrogen receptors.

It does this by binding to these estrogen receptors and in simple terms, “activating” it. This is shown in the image below.

Furthermore, BPA also changed the functioning of the cells. The authors state: “BPA exposure impairs the structure and functions of the female reproductive system in different times of life cycle and may contribute to infertility”

In summary: BPA can reduce fertility in females by interfering with egg maturation and interacting with various cells and changing the functioning of the cells.

Anxiety

Research from 2016 showed that boys that got exposed to BPA during development in the womb showed a higher chance of developing anxiety disorders and depression. The study was conducted by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

No such associations were found in girls. This indicates that it is linked to testosterone functioning during the development of the fetus.

Another study confirmed this: “These results provide evidence that BPA exposure during development is associated with more symptoms of anxiety and depression in boys but not in girls at age 10–12 years.

The proposed mechanism is that this is linked to, again, the mimicking of estrogen by BPA. This can alter how the brain develops and causes permanent changes that increase the effect of developing anxiety and depression.

In summary: Mothers exposed to BPA can increase the chance that their child will develop anxiety disorders or depression.

Heart disease

Males and females exposed to BPA showed a blood-pressure increase up to 136% this 2012 study showed. In addition to that, a 2015 review showed that there is growing evidence between BPA exposure, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.

People exposed to BPA showed higher oxidative stress (take your anti-oxidants!), gene disturbances and inflammation. This could possibly be linked to the increase in blood pressure and heart disease.

Although the exact mechanism in which BPA increases the risk of heart disease is unknown, the relationship is clear to scientists. More research is needed to give insight into the mechanism of action

In summary: BPA is associated with an increase in heart disease and blood pressure in humans. Reducing your BPA exposure can reduce your chance of heart disease.

“These studies have identified new and important potential cardiac risks associated with BPA exposure”

– Endocrine Society

Bodyweight and Diabetes

Various studies have reported that people who are obese have a much higher chance to also have higher levels of BPA. People with a BMI above 35 had a 54% chance to have higher than average levels of BPA. In other words, there is a positive correlation between obesity and BPA.

In addition to that, the reverse relationship was also found. People with higher levels of BPA also had a higher chance of being overweight. BPA concentration in urine was significantly associated with obesity in children and adolescents.

High BPA levels were also linked to an increase in insulin resistance. A pre-factor for type II diabetes. Researchers found that the risk of developing type II diabetes increased by up to 134% when people were exposed to high levels of BPA.

In summary: High levels of BPA increases the chance of obesity and type II diabetes. The precise mechanism is not known but is speculated to be related to hormonal changes.

Potential health effects of BPA infographic

What does BPA free mean?

BPA free means that the product does not use bisphenol-A (BPA) during manufacturing. When you look around you, you see a lot of plastic products that were made using BPA. A BPA free product is one in which BPA was replaced by another compound.

It does not necessarily mean that the product is any safer. The plastic industry made BPA alternatives such as BPAF, BPZ, BPP and BHPF. All these chemicals are similar to the structure of BPA and therefore can possibly have the same effects as BPA.

Early research has shown that all these bisphenol products can interfere with sperm and egg development in people. Further research is currently being conducted to get a grasp on the full effects of all these compounds.

The B in all these names stands for bisphenol, the culprit in this story. A true BPA free product is, therefore, one that does not contain any bisphenol at all. In this case, it should be called Bisphenol free.

Note that a BPA-free label could mean that the product contains not bisphenol derivatives of any kind. Contacting the manufacturer is one way to find out.

BPA free products

It can be hard to find plastics that do not contain any BPA, BPS, BPF or BHPF. These compounds are virtually everywhere: the dust in your home, your car, food packaging, receipts and much more. It is impossible to completely avoid it, making smart choices can drastically reduce your exposure.

In general, anything made of metal or glass is a good substitute for plastics. Metal is not made with any bisphenol derivative and in general, is not coated with any plastic layer. Glass is another good substitute because it does not contain any BPA.

Reducing BPA exposure

A few simple steps can be taken to drastically reduce your BPA exposure. These are summarized in the list below.

  • Do not use canned or pre-packaged foods
  • Replace plastics with glass or metal where possible
  • Do not heat your food in plastic containers
  • Ask for digital receipts instead of paper ones
  • Use BPA free make-up

Summary

BPA is an industrial chemical used for the production of plastics, receipts and make-up. Research has shown that BPA leaches into food it comes in contact with and can also enter the body through the skin.

In the body, it can interact with the estrogen receptors of cells and potentially cause various health effects such as low testosterone, heart disease, cancer, obesity and type II diabetes.

BPA can be avoided but it is important to make sure the substitute product does not use any bisphenol derivative such as BPF or BPS. Glass and metal are good substitutes for BPA containing plastics.

Avoiding canned or pre-packaged foods as well as receipts and replacing plastics with metal or glass can drastically reduce your BPA exposure and potentially spare you some serious health effects.

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