A report claims that canned food exposes us to a harmful chemical at levels high enough to cause real damage.
By Emily Main, Rodale.com
Your can of soup could put your health at risk, and not just because it contains way too much salt. A report published by the National Workgroup for Safe Markets, a coalition of public- and environmental health-advocacy groups, reveals that cans of food expose people to dangerous levels of bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-disrupting chemical that has been linked to everything from childhood aggression to obesity and heart disease.
THE DETAILS: Consumer Reports conducted similar tests on BPA in canned food a few months ago, but this new report, titled “No Silver Lining,” looks at the levels in canned food products as well as how much BPA an average person would ingest from eating the foods packaged in those cans. The authors collected 50 samples of canned food from home pantries in 19 states and one Canadian province, and had them tested by an independent lab to determine BPA levels in each can. Then, they calculated how much an average-weight (156.5 pounds) woman in her 20s would ingest from a typical daily diet of canned and fresh foods (they focused on young women because they are most likely to go on to bear children, and more and more studies are finding that some of the most damaging effects of BPA in children happen while they’re in utero).
The laboratory detected BPA in 92 percent of the canned foods, ranging in levels from non-detectable to 1,140 parts per billion. In terms of what that means to people eating canned food, here’s a brief summary of what they found:
• By eating a serving of canned peaches with breakfast, a can of ravioli for lunch, a can of chicken noodle soup as a snack, canned chili for dinner, and using coconut milk in a dessert a woman could ingest 75.4 μg, or 1.06 μg/kg body weight of BPA;
• By eating a serving of canned peaches with breakfast, a can of lentil soup for lunch, and tuna casserole made with canned tuna, peas, cream of mushroom soup, and vegetable broth for dinner, followed by bananas in canned coconut milk for dessert, she could ingest 87.28 μg, or 1.23 μg/kg body weight of BPA through canned foods alone.
• By eating no canned goods in the morning and afternoon, and just one can of soda and a single serving of green beans at dinnertime, she could ingest 138.19 μg, or 1.95 μg/kg body weight of BPA.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that an exposure level of 50 μg/kg body weight of BPA per day is safe, the authors note that these low levels have been found in both human and animal studies to be linked with aggressive behavior, changes in breast tissue and other reproductive organs, and long-term reproductive health problems.
WHAT IT MEANS: The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry group that includes canned-food companies, responded to the report by insisting that BPA is safe and that more studies are needed to show that the levels in canned foods are harmful. “GMA will rely on the current and recently reaffirmed regulatory determinations by FDA [Food and Drug Administration] that foods in cans with linings that utilize BPA are safe,” the group said in a statement. However, they may be relying on old FDA opinions. The agency for years insisted that BPA was safe, relying on two industry-funded studies confirming their position and ignoring the hundreds of independently funded studies that disagreed with them.
But in January, they finally conceded that BPA could be dangerous. “On the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children,” the agency writes on its website. It also notes that it is encouraging the industry to seek alternatives to BPA-based can linings.
You can always learn more or better understand any issue with more studies,” says Bobbi Chase Wilding, organizing director for the environmental health-advocacy group Clean NY and one of the report’s coauthors. “The best way to slow a process down without being obstructionist is to say you want more studies.”
The process she’s referring to is the increasing pressure on canned-food manufacturers from legislators. The EPA recently dubbed BPA a priority chemical of concern as it overhauls the outdated Toxic Substances Reform Act. Numerous state and local governments have already passed bans on BPA in baby products, and Senator Diane Feinstein just added an amendment to the massive Food Safety Bill currently before Congress that would ban BPA from use in canned food.
“Passing the BPA amendment would do a lot for food applications of BPA,” Wilding says. “None of the laws passed at the state level have included the broad array of BPA in the general consumption of canned goods,” she adds, leaving pregnant women, who are most vulnerable to BPA, largely unprotected.
Not surprisingly, the industry has fought the Feinstein amendment, threatening to withdraw support for the entire bill if the Feinstein amendment is included. According to an article that ran in April in the Washington Post, Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs for the GMA, sent a letter to senators on the Health Committee, where the amendment was drafted, saying, “We will not support food-safety legislation that bans or phases out BPA from any food and beverage container.”
But growing momentum among concerned consumers could override industry demands, says Wilding. “Once the writing is on the wall, you can’t avoid phasing out BPA, simply because of public outcry,” she says. Just look at the baby-bottle industry: Once it was found that baby bottles made from BPA could possibly harm a baby’s reproductive and neurological development, all the major baby-bottle manufacturers replaced BPA-based plastics with safer alternatives, and major retailers now refuse to sell baby products containing BPA.
If you want to eat canned food without worrying that your future baby’s hormones will go out of whack or that you’ll wind up with heart problems later in life, there are a few ways to make your voice heard:
1. Write Congress.
Write your senators and tell them that you support the Feintstein Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act. “The Food Safety Act amendment is really the best opportunity to address the numerous health problems associated with BPA,” Wilding says.
2. Vote with your dollars.
If a bunch of angry moms can get baby-bottle companies to take BPA out of bottles and sippy cups, just imagine with a few hundred million angry consumers can do to get canned-food companies to eliminate BPA. Avoid canned food and looked for alternatives packaged in glass bottles, cartons, and safer plastics (look for the numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5 in the recycling triangle on the product’s bottom).