Baby products often tout their BPA-free status, but without explaining why it should be avoided. But what is BPA and what are BPA plastics? Essentially BPA and phthalates – a related class of chemicals – are plasticizers that can be found in food packaging, steel can liners, drug coatings, and cosmetics. They are commonly used to make plastic strong lightweight, and flexible. And there are some very good reasons they should be avoided.
It turns out that BPA exposure can have serious consequences prenatal development, sexual maturity, and reproduction. And despite a trend of childcare products ranging from dining wear to car seat accessories and bath toys being specifically engineered to be BPA free, BPA is everywhere. That’s despite the American Association of Pediatrics warning against this use of BPA in baby products. Even trace amounts of BPA can be a problem, because of the way they interact with the body’s normal production of hormones.
“BPA’s should be our biggest concern because they contribute to the overall toxicity in our environment,” warns Mark Menolascino, MD, medical director of the Meno Clinic Center for Functional Medicine in Jackson Hole, WY, and Chief Medical Officer for Genexa.“BPAs create hormone disruption in multiple forms, including thyroid and adrenal, as well as the female and male hormones we’re familiar with,” says Menolascino.
What are BPA and Phthalates?
- They are practically ubiquitous: BPA and phthalates appear in plastics, canned food, cosmetics, and even credit card receipts.
- They are hormone disruptors: BPA and phthalates interfere with the body’s normal use of hormones; not just estrogen and testosterone, but thyroid and adrenal hormone production as well.
- They can cause physical changes: they can lead to genital changes that can cause lower sperm count in boys.
- They can cause systemic changes: they can severely disrupt hormone regulation in girls and can even cause early menopause.
In pregnant women, hormones are very much necessary for prenatal development. It’s hormones like estrogen and testosterone that cue the development of a baby’s genitals. In the case of phthalates, this can manifest itself in changes in the physical structures of the genitals. A 2014 Swedish study suggests that phthalate exposure shortened the anogenital distance (ADG) in Swedish boys. ADG is the measurement between the anus and the genitals. The shorter the distance between the two, the greater the risks of problems including low sperm count and undescended testicles. Prenatal and early exposure to BPA and phthalates can affect a child throughout their entire life. The repercussions can manifest in any number of ways, regardless of sex.
“In boys, BPAs can affect their ability for optimal performance, including testosterone levels, and may even affect fertility. If you want your son to have optimal performance, whether that be as someone who excels in math or someone who excels in sports, toxicity from chemicals like BPA’s can sabotage that performance,” says Menolascino. “In women, exposure to BPA can cause PMS, early menopause, acne, and is a strong source of other hormone disruptors. Any hormone disruptor, including BPAs, can change the hormone pathway, and other phthalates can have similar effects and increase our overall toxic load.”
And due to how widely these chemicals are used, exposure can be lifelong. BPA use is reduced in the production of certain plastics, and phthalates are currently being regulated out of toys, but there are still no real guidelines about safe levels of phthalates in pregnant women. Because of this, many endocrine specialists have recommended that pregnant women stay away from processed food (which is often in contact with plastic) and keep a close eye on the ingredients of their cosmetics. Stainless steel and glass dishes are safer options for heating food (although not stainless steel in the microwave, obviously.) But even with those precautions, BPA and phthalates are found nearly everywhere.
“The biggest concern for all of us and our kids today,” says Menolascino, “is the toxicity in our environment.”