Buyer Beware: You Might Be Eating Food From Cans Lined With Toxic BPA
By Tony Iallonardo, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
Take a moment to think about what canned foods you use. True to my Italian-American roots, I consume a lot canned tomatoes, particularly in marinara, but I also like to make soups using canned stock as a base. After working with a coalition of six health non-profits to release a new report, I'm rethinking some of my favorite meals.
Modern canned foods have a chemical-based lining that is effective in reducing canned food being tainted with botulism. That's good. But what those canned food makers use to make those linings is often not disclosed, and it may be toxic to our health. One chemical has been especially problematic in food products. It's called Bisphenol A (BPA).
What is BPA?
You may have heard of BPA. Around four or five years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the chemical from being used in baby bottles and sippy cups. The BPA can migrate from can food linings into the food itself, where people then consume it and get exposed. The FDA cited strong evidence that BPA can effect hormone activity in people, and exposure has been linked to developmental problems in children, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction and much more. As a result, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition has put BPA on its list of Hazardous 100+ chemicals. So let's just say it's something you should avoid.
And here's the rub. The new report tested almost 200 food cans from around the U.S., various types of food, retailers, and manufacturers that are household names like Campbell's and Del Monte. We found BPA is common. It's everywhere. Two-thirds of cans we tested had it. And it's often not disclosed.
A Little More Bad News
Unfortunately, there's some more troubling findings from the tests. Many of the other cans that didn't have BPA contained other chemicals that are also problematic. Many of those other cans had acrylic resins that contain styrene, a chemical linked to cancer, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic made with hazardous chemicals like the known human carcinogen vinyl chloride. The phrase the health groups use to describe this is “regrettable substitution," meaning manufacturers swap out a toxic chemical, but then use another problem chemical in its place.
Making Safer Choices
The first thing to do is inform yourself. You can check out the report and results. When in doubt, avoid canned food if you can substitute with fresh food, or food packaged in jars and safer materials. There's also safer cans! Amy's Kitchen, Annie's Homegrown, Hain Celestial Group and ConAgra have fully transitioned away from BPA.
You can tell retailers you want safer canned food options. Retailers have significant leverage and pressure their suppliers to clean up their act. So advocates are asking the largest grocery chain in the U.S., Kroger, to phase out BPA in cans they sell under their brand. Click here to tell Kroger to eliminate and safely substitute BPA.
Still reading? Great, here's a deeper look at the key findings.
- 100 percent of Campbell's products sampled (15 of 15) contained BPA-based epoxy, while the company says they are making significant progress in its transition away from BPA.
- 71 percent of sample Del Monte cans (10 of 14) tested positive for BPA-based epoxy resins.
- 42 percent of sampled General Mills cans (six of 12, including Progresso and Green Giant) tested positive for BPA.
- Collectively, 62 percent of retailers' private label or generic brand food cans analyzed in the study tested positive for BPA-based epoxy resins, including Albertsons (including Randalls and Safeway), Dollar General, Dollar Tree (including Family Dollar), Gordon Food Service, Kroger, Loblaws, Meijer, Publix, Target, Trader Joe's, and Walmart.
- BPA was found in the majority of private-label canned goods tested at the two biggest dedicated grocery retailers in the United States: Kroger and Albertsons (Safeway). In private-label cans, 62 percent of the Kroger products sampled (13 out of 21), and 50 percent of the Albertsons products sampled (eight out of 16 from Albertsons, Randalls, Safeway) tested positive for BPA-based epoxy resins.
- BPA was found in private-label cans sold at both Target and Walmart, the largest grocery retailer in the United States. In their private label products, 100 percent of Target cans sampled (five out of five) and 88 percent of Walmart cans sampled (seven out of eight) tested positive for BPA-based epoxy resins.
- Discount retailers (commonly known as 'dollar stores') were among the laggards in transitioning away from BPA in can linings. Testing revealed that all (100 percent) of bean and tomato products tested from Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar were coated with BPA-based epoxy resins, which is especially a problem because discount retailers are often the major retail outlet in low-income communities—which already face high levels of BPA exposure.
- Broth and gravy cans were the most likely (100 percent of those sampled) to contain BPA in the can linings; corn and peas were the least likely category (41 percent of those sampled).
- On the positive side, Amy's Kitchen, Annie's Homegrown (recently acquired by General Mills), Hain Celestial Group, and ConAgra have fully transitioned away from BPA and have disclosed the BPA alternatives they're using. Eden Foods reported eliminating the use of BPA-based epoxy liners in 95 percent of its canned foods and stated that it is actively looking for alternatives. Whole Foods has adopted the strongest policy of the retailers surveyed in the report. Whole Foods reports that store brand buyers are not currently accepting any new canned items with BPA in the lining material.
Tony Iallonardo enjoys making pasta sauce, chili, soups and stews. He's also communications director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. A coalition of 450 health, labor, environment and business groups working to improve chemicals safety.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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