BPA and Phthalates: It’s what for dinner (and 7 ways to avoid them)

Here is a timely and important guest post by Keely Savoie. As if we need another reason to support the Safe Chemicals Act, here it is! No matter what decisions we make, toxic chemicals are in our food. This is unacceptable. We must protect our children from the health consequences of toxic chemicals in our foods. Please call your senators and ask for their support of the Safe Chemicals Act!

If you’re reading this blog, you probably believe in the power of the educated consumer—that armed with proper knowledge and discerning dollars, consumers have the power to reduce or eliminate their—and their kids’—exposures to chemicals and toxins in their food and environment.

But a recently published study found alarming evidence to the contrary, especially with regard to bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates. In the study, families that were put on a catered diet of local, organic food that was prepared and stored without plastic did not reduce their exposure to phthalates and BPA as expected. On the contrary, after five days of eating the purportedly plastic-free food, the families showed a sharp spike in their levels of phthalates and a smaller uptick in BPA levels.

So, what’s the problem? BPA and phthalates are so-called “endocrine disrupters”; they can interfere with the actions hormones—phthalates mimic testosterone and BPA mimics estrogen—and have been associated with wide ranging effects of growth and development. In rat studies, phthalates have been found to cause problems with male reproductive organs. In children children, phthalates have been associated with changes in reproductive hormones, increased allergies, runny nose, and eczema. In adults, phthalates are associated with changes in sperm quality. BPA may cause changes in cells in breasts, the uterus, and the prostate, which can increase risk of cancers. BPA has also been associated with increases in developmental disorders of the brain and nervous system in animals, and has been linked to behavioral disorders like ADHD.

When the researchers went back and tested the components of the experimental diet, they identified the culprits: the ground spices (coriander, cayenne and cinnamon) milk, butter and cream all had surprisingly high levels of BPA and/or phthalates.

But before you purge all spices from your diet and go vegan (not to say that’s a bad idea) in an effort to eliminate your family’s exposures, consider the larger issue: both phthalates and BPA are ubiquitous in contemporary living. Phthalates are plasticizers—they make plastic soft and flexible (and preserve fragrances in many personal care products). BPA makes plastics harder and more durable, and is in the linings of many cans. It’s not hard to imagine how both can wind up in the food supply in unexpected places.

But because much of the scientific research has been in animals and at levels of exposure far greater than most people experience, there is still no scientific consensus on the health threat that BPA and phthalates pose at normal exposure levels. That fact, and the FDA’s glacial progress on the topic have kept BPA and phthalates almost completely unregulated (though the FDA, bowing to public pressure, did ban BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups last year), so the burden of reducing exposures still falls on consumers—and this study shines a bright light on the inherent problem of that.

Still, while we wait for meaningful regulation, there are still some steps you can take to reduce—but almost certainly not eliminate—your and your family’s exposure to BPA, phthalates and other endocrine disrupters in your family’s diet:

1. Avoid plastic when possible. A 2011 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that even “BPA free” plastic contains chemicals that have a similar estrogenic effect.

2. If you do use plastic food containers (and let’s face it, it’s nearly impossible to completely remove them from your life), do not heat them or wash them in the dishwasher.

3. Do not use plastic dishes for hot or warm food or drink.

4. Avoid food high in animal fat. BPA is fat soluble.

5. Eat fresh, unprocessed food when possible. The less processed your food is, the less likely it will have come into contact with a significant amount of BPA or phthalates.

6. Avoid canned food.

7. Limit large quantities of spices. While Dr. Sathyanarayana does believe that the levels of phthalates found in the spices in her study were anomalous, she nevertheless suggests limiting spices in your diet. “The take-home point is we cannot know which will have high [levels of phthalates and BPA] and which will not,” she says.

Keely Savoie is a science and medical journalist. Her work has appeared in Parents.com, Prevention.com, Bitch and Clamor magazines and others. You comments and questions are welcome at keelygsavoie@gmail.com.

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