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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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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