The recently published Environmental Working Group (EWG) study, “BPA in Canned Food: Behind the Brand Curtain,” on Bisphenol A (BPA) contamination in canned foods highlighted what many consumers don’t know—your food contains literally hundreds of chemicals. Present in trace amounts, some enter food by leaching from the container (such as the epoxy lining of metal cans). Whether or not this continuous, low dose exposure to a complex cocktail of chemicals poses a risk to human health is poorly understood and a polarizing topic that is difficult for consumers to navigate.
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The EWG focused on one of the most well-known of these chemicals: BPA. Metal food cans are lined with an epoxy resin in order to prevent corrosion and other damage that could heighten the risk of contamination with botulism. BPA is frequently found in these resins because it makes it more durable, and is also found in a myriad of other products including polycarbonate plastics, cash register receipts, medical devices and fire retardants. BPA is also considered an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) because it can interfere with hormones, most notably estrogen. It is for this reason that many individuals are seeking ways to reduce exposure.
Whether or not a canned food product is packaged with a BPA-containing lining such as epoxy is typically not disclosed. However, testing by Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) and other groups have previously found that use of BPA-containing lining in food cans is widespread. Some manufacturers have announced their intention to phase out and discontinue use of BPA-containing can linings in favor of BPA-free linings or alternative packaging methods. The EWG study was conducted to follow up on that manufacturer claim, and assess progress towards that goal. The study found that only 12 percent of brands were truly BPA-free. An important caveat of the study is that the EWG did not conduct independent tests to validate their findings so the conclusions are entirely based on self-reported data. All data for the EWG study came from a market survey, conducted using the tool LabelINSIGHT.
Some cans have a BPA-free label but there are no uniform or enforceable standards for making such a claim. So, importantly, even if a can is labeled as BPA-free, there is no guarantee that the claim is valid. For their survey, the EWG considered a can to be BPA-free if the can lining was not intentionally manufactured with BPA. Companies reporting “trace amounts” of BPA, BPA levels in compliance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements, or levels “below” or “well below” FDA requirements were classified as containing BPA unless the manufactures could provide data on the specific levels. So the percent of brands that are truly BPA-free may be a little higher than the estimated 12 percent.
Consumers should also be aware that “BPA-free” does not mean “EDC-free.” Hundreds of EDCs have now been identified and are ubiquitous in food packaging, personal care products, household cleaners, cookware, furniture and building materials. Some of the most well-known EDCs are fire retardants (used in furniture, electronics and building materials), surfactants (used on waterproof fabrics and cookware,) plasticizers (used in food materials, medical devices, the coating of pharmaceuticals, paints, personal care products, and cosmetics) and pesticides. Although they have different mechanisms of action in the body, they are classified as EDCs because they disrupt aspects of the endocrine system, including the activity of estrogen, testosterone and the thyroid hormone.
One particular concern is exposure during critical windows of development, including gestation (pregnancy), when hormones play a fundamentally important role in shaping organs, such as the brain. Early childhood and puberty are also considered to be especially vulnerable periods to chemical exposures. Health effects associated with EDC exposure include lower sperm counts, infertility, early puberty, increased breast and prostate cancer risk, obesity and metabolic disease.
Because EDCs are present in foods and food packing in such small amounts, the FDA and other regulatory agencies consider them safe and insist that people are not exposed at levels high enough to cause health effects. However, what’s disturbing about this practice is that it leaves consumers utterly in the dark about the nature of the potentially dangerous chemicals they unwittingly put into their bodies every day.
BPA is ubiquitous and the Center for Disease Control has estimated that nearly all Americans are continuously exposed. More than a thousand studies, using a variety of animal models and other laboratory tests, have identified BPA-related effects including early puberty, heightened risk of breast and prostate cancer, ovarian malformations and effects on the developing brain. BPA exposure has also been associated with behavioral effects in children and cardiovascular disease risk in adults. The FDA has repeatedly concluded, however, that current exposure levels pose no significant health risk—a position they reiterated last year. This conflicting information can make it difficult for consumers to understand the state of the science and make informed purchasing decisions.
While it’s unclear exactly how many EDCs are in food, the FDA is currently tracking hundreds of chemicals present in trace amounts. Most of these chemicals have not undergone any toxicity testing of any kind, and current regulatory policy does not require that they be tested for endocrine disrupting effects. Although it is impossible to know precisely which foods are contaminated and which are not, there are simple, general things consumers can do to significantly reduce chemical exposure.
Avoiding heavily processed and packaged food is one of the most effective ways, as is choosing locally sourced organic foods. Be aware that plastics can leach other chemicals besides BPA, including BPS, a chemical structurally similar to BPA. There is growing evidence that BPS is also capable of interfering with estrogen signaling. Softer plastics and plastic wraps contain a class of chemicals called phthalates, some of which interfere with testosterone signaling.
Cardboard beverage containers are lined with a plastic-like coating to keep them from leaking, and this coating can leach chemicals into the liquid inside. To minimize exposure, choose milk and other liquids sold in glass containers, and store beverages at home in glass. Glass is inert and will not react with the liquid leaving a funny taste like metal. Acidic foods, such as coffee and tomato juice, and alcoholic beverages are most likely to react with the food containers so when possible, purchase these items in glass. Also, avoid microwaving food on plastic or in plastic packaging because this can cause chemicals to leach into the food. Use a ceramic plate or glass container instead.
Can linings were developed for a critical reason: to prevent botulism and spoilage. They do an excellent job at that, but an unintended consequence is that they leach trace amounts of BPA and other chemicals. Plastic food packaging also helps keep food safe from bacteria, but largely exists for another reason: convenience. The vast majority of all disposable plastic water bottles, utensils, cups and take-away cartons end up in a landfill or the ocean, where it takes hundreds if not thousands of years to decay. As a result of all that pollution, there is nowhere on Earth that is not chemically contaminated. Glass bottles, metal utensils and similar materials are recyclable but also durable and reusable, making them a “greener” choice. Using data from the EWG and others to reduce chemical exposures, but also waste, is a good choice for individual health and the health of our planet.
Dr. Heather Patisaul is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at NC State University. Dr. Patisaul received her Ph.D. from Emory University in 2001 and explores the mechanisms by which endocrine disruptors alter neuroendocrine pathways in the brain related to sex specific physiology and behavior.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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