Almost a decade has passed since we became aware of the potential health issues associated with a widely used chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA). There were many questions and a general direction to be cautious. Given what we now know, we were certainly on the right track at the time. The primary concern then was whether BPA could leach into food and drink and if so, if there might be health implications. What we know today confirms those concerns.
The original concerns over BPA centered on its use in baby bottles and sippy cups, and in water bottles popular with hikers and campers. Given the then-concern over BPA, many manufacturers removed it from their products. But BPA remains an important material for thousands of products. Indeed, billions of pounds are still produced each year for use in hard plastic products from eyeglass lenses to auto parts, compact discs and even some dental compounds. Our main concerns remain with its use in polycarbonate food containers, the lining of metal food and beverage cans and thermal paper. These are the three main entry points of BPA into our bodies.
BPA is used as a hardener for polycarbonate plastics used for many reusable food containers and many consumer goods. It is also used in the epoxy resin that lines food and drink cans to prevent corrosion. Here, the concern is that trace amounts of BPA can leach into the food/drink, especially if it is acidic. A Harvard study found that people who consumed canned soup for five days in a row had 10 times the levels of BPA in their urine as compared to when they consumed fresh soup. A similar Korean study found elevated levels in women who drank two cans of soy milk from cans compared to when they were from glass bottles.
The thermal paper receipt is ubiquitous and with that comes BPA. These are thin paper coated with heat-activated developers that are used for many kinds of receipts including cash registers, bank machines, credit card terminals and more. They can be identified by scratching the surface to produce dark mark.What makes this source of BPA especially worrisome is that the material is free and much more easily transferred to skin where it is absorbed more directly than if it were in food from a can. Making the problem worse, alcohol-based hand sanitizers or wet skin enhance the ability of BPA to absorb into the body.
There are obvious steps to take to reduce exposure to BPA including using glass, steel or aluminum bottles and food containers instead of polycarbonate. However, if you do use them, do not use polycarbonates for very hot food or boiling liquids, and do not microwave unless the container is labelled microwave-safe. You should also limit consumption of canned foods.
As for thermal paper receipts, wash hands in soap and water after handling them, and keep them away from small children and pregnant women. Try not to handle the paper after using alcohol-based sanitizers or with wet hands. If your job requires frequent contact with thermal paper, wear disposable gloves.
Our concerns over BPA from the last decade are being proven but caution should still be our approach. After all, we should realize that whatever takes its place may well bring its own problems; it may not be any safer.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.