Think before you sip
What would you do if a harmful chemical was all around you, a chemical scientists have linked to breast cancer, diabetes and reproductive issues? According to many researchers, chemical presense is the norm in the United States, thanks to the nation’s dependence on plastics.
The chemical in question is Bisphenol A, commonly referred to as BPA. It’s an organic compound used in the production of many plastics and additives. It has been compared to estrogen in its effects and composition.
Until recently, it was used often in many common household objects. BPA was used to produce plastic packaging, microwavable plastics, canned foods, baby bottles and water bottles. An article in the Boston Herald published within the last year cites particular concern to college students because of its former use in the production of a college staple – durable water bottles, particularly Nalgenes.
In the spring of 2008, after multiple companies stopped carrying the brand, Nalgene began a process of phasing out BPA as an additive, though old bottles and even other makers are potentially dangerous.
Concern began a few years ago when scientific studies led to Connecticut and Minnesota passing laws to ban the chemical. Retailers such as Babies ‘R’ Us have also stopped carrying products containing BPA. Many bottle and plastic food container producers have stopped using it in their products as well.
Canada became the first nation to completely ban BPA products, classifying it as a hazardous substance in 2008. It has since been placed on the list of toxic substances, though they note that it is much more harmful to babies than the general population. Tests are still in effect.
Within the last week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ordered the Department of Public Health to begin the process of banning BPA in baby bottles, as well as in other food and drink containers.
Scientists believe that when the product carrying BPA is heated – whether in the microwave, naturally or by a food or liquid it holds – the chemical is “leached” into food or liquids, which can then be consumed. Now, though, reports have surfaced that BPA can be absorbed into food or drink even when not heated.
So far, research has been generally foreboding. The University of Cincinnati saw a direct correlation between BPA and a high risk of heart disease in women. A Health Canada report said that scientists linked the chemical to breast cancer and early puberty, and noted the harmful effects it can have on babies.
So how do consumers know if they’re at risk for BPA contamination? Most plastics are labeled with a recycling number. Initial advice from scientists advises people to stay away from plastics with labeled with the numbers seven and three. Some products with these numbers may be alright, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry.
They also maintain that people should limit their use of canned foods and aluminum bottles as well. In general, plastics which are soft and cloudy are alright. The Boston Globe reported on June 1, 2009 that Mia Davis, an employee of Clean Water Action, says that if the bottle can be squeezed, it’s probably safe. So basically, in a mixed message, bottled water is fairly safe, even if it is bad for the environment.
Peoples’ safest bet for now is to drink out of stainless steel water bottles, such as those supplied for free by UMass dining services. It looks like UMass Amherst is ahead of the curve, and the rest of the state and nation needs to catch up.
Kate MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.