The Food and Drug Administration announced early this spring that it would not ban BPA from food containers. “The scientific evidence at this time does not suggest that the very low levels of human exposure to BPA through the diet are unsafe,” the agency said.

FDA officials stressed that they would continue to assess the safety of BPA and expect to issue another update later this year. Here’s what you need to know now.

BPA, short for bisphenol A, is used to make some hard plastic containers and the linings of food and drink cans (it protects the metal from reacting with the contents). It’s also found in a slew of consumer products, from CDs to eyeglass lenses to cash register receipts. Nearly everyone in the United States has traces of it in their body.

What’s wrong with that? BPA is an estrogen “mimic” that may disrupt the normal hormonal control of tissues by activating the same receptors on cells that naturally occurring estrogen activates.

Traditional toxicity tests typically find no harm from BPA. However, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health, continues to have “some concern”—based on newer kinds of toxicity studies in animals— about BPA’s “effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children.”

Researchers are now looking at BPA in humans. Here’s what they’re finding:

■ The higher the levels of BPA in the urine of pregnant Cincinnati mothers, the more their daughters were anxious, depressed, and hyperactive and the poorer their emotional control when they were three years old.1

■ British men and women who were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease were more likely to have had higher levels of BPA in their urine 11 years earlier than similar people who weren’t diagnosed with heart disease.2

■ Men and women in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys who had higher levels of BPA in their urine were more likely to have coronary heart disease or type 2 diabetes, though the surveys couldn’t tell which came first, higher BPA levels or the diseases.3,4

■ Among men seeking treatment at a Massachusetts fertility clinic, higher urinary levels of BPA were linked to lower sperm concentration and motility and to greater damage to sperm DNA.5 Bottom line: There’s no smoking gun, but it makes sense to try to avoid BPA.

1 Pediatrics 128: 873, 2011.

2 DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.069153.

3 PLoS 5: e8673, 2010.

4 J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 96: 3822, 2011.

5 Reprod. Toxicol. 30: 532, 2010.


BPA is everywhere in the environment, so you can’t avoid it entirely. “But if you’re concerned, you can take steps to reduce your exposure,” says Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Here’s how:

1. Avoid polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is a plastic that contains BPA, and the compound can leach into food that comes into contact with the plastic.

Polycarbonate is typically hard and clear, and carries the recycling No. 7 on the bottom. Not everything labeled 7 is polycarbonate, though. The number is a grab bag category for miscellaneous plastics.

One big change that has already taken place: BPA is no longer used in baby bottles and sippy cups, according to the FDA.

2. Watch the heat. Since heat can accelerate the leaching of BPA, “do not put very hot or boiling liquid that you intend to consume in plastic containers made with BPA,” cautions the FDA. And “discard all bottles with scratches, as these may harbor bacteria and, if BPA-containing, lead to greater release of BPA.”

3. Be gentle. Don’t microwave polycarbonate food containers or run them through the dishwasher, says NIEHS, because the plastic can break down with repeated exposure to high temperatures.

4. Minimize canned foods and drinks. “Consumers concerned about BPA in canned food can eat fresh or frozen foods,” suggests NIEHS’ Linda Birnbaum. There’s also bottled or dried food or food in shelf-stable packaging. Last year, Harvard researchers found that when volunteers ate a serving of canned soup every day for five days, BPA levels in their urine jumped more than tenfold.1

Some companies—Amy’s, for example— have switched entirely to BPA-free cans. So has Eden for most of its canned foods. Still others, like Del Monte, Muir Glen, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods, have started to use BPA-free cans. Ditto for brands like Campbell’s Soup and Hunt’s Tomatoes.

To find out about a specific food, you’ll need to check the company’s Web site or call customer service.

1 JAMA 306: 2218, 2011.