Should We Ban the Can?
In a recent article, I outlined some of the advantages and drawbacks of bottles and cans as containers for beer. Soon after, a reader inquired into the presence of bisphenol A, or BPA, in aluminum can liners. I investigated a bit and discovered that yes, beer can liners indeed have BPA in them, as do all aluminum cans and most types of plastics. Dismayed, I began to wonder what exactly are the ramifications of BPA. What are the effects of BPA exposure, and who is at the greatest risk? What are the alternatives to BPA and are they really safer? And most importantly, is BPA so bad that I should avoid my precious can of beer?
Bisphenol A is a carbon-based synthetic compound discovered in 1891, and has been in use as a hardening agent in polycarbonate plastic since the 1950s. In the last halfcentury it has been used increasingly in the lining of food and beverage containers. In recent years, efforts to promote BPA-free products such as water bottles and tin cans have become more visible in marketing outlets. This trend follows a series of studies reaching back to the late 90’s that investigate the adverse effects of low-dose exposure of BPA to humans and animals. Research has revealed that BPA is an endocrine disruptor that can mimic estrogen, causing a variety of negative health effects. Early developmental stages appear to be the period of greatest sensitivity to its effects, and some studies have linked prenatal exposure to later neurological and physical difficulties such as obesity, breast and prostate cancer, lung and heart disease, and immune system disorders.
Other studies conclude that BPA poses no health risk, and as a result opinions on BPA vary significantly in the scientific field. There is, however, a general consensus that BPA exposure should be of some concern to developing children-—and therefore pregnant women—whereas it is easily metabolized and expelled from the bodies of adults.
Exposure to BPA is greatest in the consumption of products packaged in plastic-lined containers, where BPA can leech into the contents. Heat and cleaning detergents encourage the likelihood of BPA leeching. Powdered, microscopic BPA is used in thermal paper used at cash registers and as credit card receipts, which can easily transfer to the hands and increase the likelihood of incidental ingestion. (LifeSource uses BPA-free receipt paper.) There is limited data on inhalation and dermal absorption, but the body of research continues to grow. Studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control found BPA in the urine of 95% of adults sampled in 1988- 94 and in 93% of children and adults tested in 2003-04. Clearly, exposure to BPA is prevalent, and has been for generations.
In response to the findings of these many studies on BPA, world governments have applied measures to curb the compound’s presence in consumer products. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland and Turkey all regard BPA as generally safe in existing levels of consumer products, though each has taken measures to reduce or ban BPA-containing baby bottles, sippy cups, and packaged formula. The United Kingdom is working towards banning BPA in all food contact materials, and as of 2015 France will ban all food packaging containing BPA.
As consumer demand has pushed world governments into action against BPA, so too have the industries that produce BPA-containing products responded. From 1998 to 2003, Japan’s canning industry voluntarily replaced BPA-containing epoxy resin with a BPA-free alternative in many of its products. Other products switched to a BPA-containing lining that yielded much less migration of BPA into food. Subsequent studies indicated virtually no detectable BPA in canned food and drinks, and a significant drop of BPA in the blood levels of the Japanese people—up to 50% in one study.
Coating the inside of cans is necessary as it keeps the potentially harmful metals from corroding and leaching into food stored within. Here in the U.S., the leading manufacturer of metal food and beverage containers is the Ball Corporation. According to a statement made by Ball in 2010 there is not currently a viable alternative to BPA-containing epoxy coatings that meets the existing requirements of all products packaged in cans. There are limited alternatives for certain products, but those alternatives pose performance, shelf life, and environmental or supply availability changes. Work on alternative coatings is being done, but so far results are mixed. The statement finishes: “If interest continues in non epoxy-based coatings, we will offer those coatings when (they) become commercially available.”
The increasing availability of BPA-free products may be an encouraging development, but it appears the alternative is one in name only. The substitute compound most commonly used in plastic products labeled “BPA-Free” is bisphenol S or BPS. A 2011 study that analyzed 455 common plastics concluded: “Almost all commercially available plastic products we s amp l e d , independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source, leached chemicals having reliably-detectable EA (endocrine activity), including those advertised as BPA-free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products.” A 2013 study showed that BPS shared similar problems to BPA in that is has been found to be an estrogen hormone disruptor even at extremely low levels.
If you or someone you live with falls into the category of greatest risk to BPA exposure (is pregnant or in the developing stages of childhood) there are steps you can take. Don’t microwave food or drink in plastic containers. Hand wash plastic dishware and water bottles rather than running them in the dishwasher. Wash hands after handling receipt paper, or generally anytime prior to eating or drinking. Use Number 1, 5, vegetable-based plastics, or shatter-resistant glass containers. Avoid non vegetable-based plastics with the Number 7 recycling symbol—they are more likely to contain BPA. Replace plastic containers as they break down over time and increase the likelihood of leaching into food.
We can also support companies that package their products in true BPA-free alternatives. Eden Foods is one such producer—since 1999 all their canned beans use oleoresin, a mixture of oil and resin extracted from plants such as pine or balsam fir. This alternative was achieved in partnership with the Ball Corporation, though at a much higher (and increasing) cost. Eden has worked towards lowering the levels of BPA in the liners of high-acid foods—such as canned tomatoes—by using an epoxy with very low detectable BPA, and two layers of coating (a BPA-free coating on top of the BPAcontaining epoxy) on the lids of glass jars to avoid any contact between the lining and the food. Eden offers their products at reasonable prices despite the increased cost of production, as it is among their goals to meet the demand of providing toxin-free food packaging.
Though it is clear that there are many concerns being raised about the issue, it appears that society is a long way off from accepting BPA as an imminent health threat, let alone eliminating it completely from all consumer products. The issue boils down to the question of an “acceptable level of risk.” At what point is the margin of safety too small that we do not consume certain products? Do we abandon an inexpensive and reliable method of food storage because of drawbacks that might affect us over a significant period of time? Do we favor one substance over another that—although under present manufacturing conditions is potentially unhealthy—is lighter, more recyclable, and has an overall lower environmental impact? Knowledge is a powerful tool for each of us to balance the risks, impacts, and consequences of our consumption.
And do I, now armed with this knowledge, dare reach for that can of craft IPA? Considering that I am a BPA-metabolizing adult male, not at risk of passing exposure to an unborn child, consuming a product that was not heated nor stored for an extended time in its BPA-containing package, and have thoroughly washed my hands following the handling of any credit card receipts prior to pulling the tab, I do hereby deem this delicious beer—in it’s easily recyclable container—to be within an acceptable level of risk, indeed!
At LifeSource we offer a variety of BPA alternative packaging and strive to maintain a BPA-free store environment. For more information please contact LifeSource’s Recycling and Sustainability Coordinator Michelle Seuss.