We Just Can't Quit That BPA

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Until a few years ago, many people were not that familiar with bisphenol A -- otherwise known as BPA -- a manmade chemical often found in the lining of many plastic and aluminum food containers. It entered public discourse after concerns were raised by public health advocacy groups that BPA may be contributing to the development of health conditions including cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, metabolic problems and adult diabetes.

In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration banned BPA from use in manufacturing baby bottles and sippy cups, but not other types of food and beverage containers. A recent study finds BPA exposure could be costing nearly $3 billion a year in the United States in associated health costs for childhood obesity and adult heart disease.

It found BPA exposure was linked to 12,404 cases of childhood obesity and 33,863 new cases of coronary heart disease in 2008. The study concluded that removing BPA from food containers might prevent as many as 6,236 cases of childhood obesity and 22,350 cases of coronary heart disease annually, leading to an economic benefit equivalent to $1.7 billion a year.

Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor in pediatrics, environmental medicine and health policy at New York University's Lagone Medical Center and the study's author and lead researcher, based his analysis on past studies that have found a link between BPA exposure and these two medical conditions.

"We modeled effects of BPA on childhood obesity and adult coronary heart diseases using relationships identified in well-conducted, peer review studies," Trasande says. "We then modeled a counterfactual scenario in which BPA was removed from food uses and quantified benefits of prevention."

Many laboratory studies have found an association between BPA exposure and obesity, including an association between the prevalence of BPA in urine and obesity. For its correlation to coronary heart disease, BPA's impact is twofold. First, BPA in the body inhibits the release of a protein that acts as a preventative against heart disease. Secondly, BPA also seems to increase the production of free radicals in the body, which contribute to plaque build-up and blockages in coronary arteries.

BPA's use in the U.S. became much more widespread starting in the 1960s as food packaging such as cans and disposable plastic containers became more commonplace. Currently, more than 8 billion pounds of BPA are used in products every year in the U.S., with more than a million released into the environment annually.

In addition to the recent U.S. ban, BPA is banned in baby bottles in Canada and the European Union. In response to growing public concern over its potential health impacts, many manufacturers have begun to phase out BPA in some of their products. Campbell Soup announced in 2012 it would phase out BPA in its canned products, while Heinz and Trader Joe's already have products with BPA-free containers on the market.

Despite the partial federal ban and companion voluntary actions, the FDA maintains that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure.

Since Trasande's study was released, other groups have been vocal in asserting that BPA in food packaging is generally beneficial.

There are "significant economic and public health benefits BPA delivers for a range of things from the safety and integrity of packaged foods to high performance sports equipment and auto parts," Steve Hentges, a representative of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Society, told Huffington Post.

A problem: Laboratory studies have indicated many people might be exposed to BPA at much higher doses on a daily basis than what the FDA considers safe. One study released in 2009 even found that urine levels of BPA do not offer an accurate assessment of exposure, as they tend to fluctuate and at times are much lower than actual exposure levels.

Some of the chemicals used to replace BPA could pose even greater health risks, though. Bisphenol-S, or BPS, is commonly used in "BPA-free" products, but has a chemical composition similar to BPA and has been shown in some lab studies to have similar adverse health effects.

Trasande has suggested that instead of BPA or BPS, the industry could make use of an oil-and-resin mixture known as "oleoresin." Even though this compound costs approximately 2.2 cents more than BPA per aluminum can or an estimate of $2.2 billion more a year for the industry Trasande says the net health benefits would far outweigh the costs. Taking BPA out of food containers was projected to reduce exposure by 66% to 92%, Trasande said, with proportional cost benefits.

"Replacing BPA with BPS is unlikely to produce the same health and economic benefits as linings made from materials free of the health risks associated with BPA," Trasande says. "There are safer alternatives. The cost of replacing BPA compares favorably to the $1.7 billion economic benefit of [less obesity and coronary heart disease], and in fact could be as much as sixfold more than the cost of replacing it under certain scenarios."

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