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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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
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Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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