You’ve definitely seen it on the packaging of plastic products, especially food storage containers and water bottles: “BPA-free.” What you may not know is what exactly BPA is, why it’s a problem, and other substances that produce similarly problematic effects on our health and environment.
“BPA” stands for “bisphenol A,” and it’s an industrial chemical that’s been used to harden plastics for the last fifty years or so. For decades, it was commonly found in polycarbonate plastics used in containers for food and beverages and epoxy resins used to coat the inside of metal products, like cans and bottle tops. It’s also been used in CDs, medical devices, dental sealants, and more.
The concern is that BPA can seep into foods within these containers. About ten years ago, the Food and Drug Administration changed its stance on BPA. The FDA maintains that BPA is safe in low quantities (which would be good news, considering 90% of us have BPA in our bodies from these products, or else simply from breathing the air or dust or drinking water). But the FDA pronounces “some concern” that exposure to BPA could cause damage to the“ brain and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children”; alter children’s behavior; and increase blood pressure. The evidence for this claim comes largely from animal studies.
BPA is recognized as an “endocrine disrupting compound,” which means it can behave like a hormone (specifically estrogen) in the body, interfering with proper development. The effects are especially prominent in fetuses, infants, and children, whose bodies are “less efficient at eliminating substances from their systems.” The fact that it can function as a hormone means it can affect almost everything in our bodies.
Unfortunately, recent research has found similar issues with chemicals that have been touted as alternatives: bisphenol S, for example. Scientists call these “regrettable substitutes,” and suggest we eliminate both products containing BPA and these harmful alternatives from our lifestyles. One expert recommends regulating chemicals by class, rather than individually, in an effort to stop the damage done to society overall as soon as possible.
Further Cause for Concern?
A similar (though seemingly less newsworthy) debate is going on concerning hormonal birth control in our water supply. Just like BPA, hormonal birth control disrupts natural hormone function, specifically when it contains synthetic estrogen. Municipal filtration systems are incapable of eliminating every trace of pharmaceuticals from the water supply, which means we—and our children—are drinking all kinds of things we’d probably rather not.
Some studies have shown hormonal birth control in the water has a harmful effect on fish, rendering males infertile and contributing to offspring with both male and female sex organs. Others seem to disprove this claim, arguing that the estrogen in our water comes in greater quantities from other sources (livestock waste, soy and dairy foods, and other drugs). But as Dr. Charles Tyler, a reproductive physiologist and eco-toxicologist and Deputy Head of Biosciences at the University of Exeter, England shared with Natural Womanhood in 2017, “There are lots of chemicals that are estrogenic, but nothing as exquisitely potent as EE2 [the chemical contained in a number of hormonal contraceptives]. If you look at the evidence objectively then it is pretty much overwhelming that this is a key player in the feminization of fish.”
“There is a clear effect of environmental EE2 on fish populations as well as species higher in the food chain such as frogs. An effect on humans is also possible. . . . A 2017 study out of Hebrew University and Mount Sinai Medical School found that sperm counts in human men have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1973. While it has been noted that environmental exposure to individual steroidal estrogens, as well as their mixtures, are unlikely to dramatically affect endocrine signaling in humans, it is not clear whether more subtle effects are possible.”
Another study has shown that even when first-generation animals don’t seem to show side effects from exposure to hormonal birth control, their offspring may pay the price with lower fertility rates. Is that a risk we’re willing to take?
Future Generations Could Thank Us
The reality is that we don’t know exactly what the cocktail of trace pharmaceuticals in our water supply is doing to this generation or what effect it will have on our children or their children. Perhaps switching to a different material for food storage than plastic seems more convenient than eliminating hormonal birth control from our lifestyle. But if the effects do exist and they are as damaging as they could be, especially in terms of male fertility, convenience ought not to be a factor.
Thankfully there are drug-free alternatives of family planning that are more environmentally friendly and contribute more positively to women’s health and wellness. Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABMs) acknowledge and respect women’s bodies, rather than work against them. These have no harmful side effects, and the only consequence for the next generation is invaluable knowledge about their family’s biological history. Thousands upon thousands of charted cycles have been used to develop these methods with scientifically and ethically sound practices, which simply can’t be said about hormonal birth control.
So if we’re concerned about our BPA intake as a culture, we should take a closer look at the effects of hormonal birth control. If we’re going to voice concerns about endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment, let’s be sure we cover them all.