What's In My Plastic? Inspecting Food Containers

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical used primarily to make plastic durable and scratch-resistant. Some manufacturers voluntarily removed BPA from food and toy-related products after studies suggested an association between higher levels of exposure to the chemical and effects on the brain and behavior. There are no conclusive studies, however, that link it to human health problems.

Where is BPA found?

The main source of human exposure to BPA is the tiny amounts that leach from certain food and drink packaging. BPA is often used in polycarbonate plastics, which are typically clear and hard, such as reusable water bottles, as well as in the protective epoxy lining of metal food cans, according to the National Toxicology Program. The chemical is also found in some baby bottles, tableware, food storage containers and impact-resistant safety and sports equipment.

Does BPA cause health problems?

Studies on the effects of BPA are conflicting. Some animal studies have suggested a link between BPA and effects on the brain, behavior and the prostate gland and raised concerns about the effects of exposure on fetuses and young children. Scientists debate whether these effects could possibly occur in humans who are exposed to low environmental levels of these chemicals.

There are no conclusive studies linking BPA to human health problems.

It's also unclear what determines how much leaching of the chemical occurs from plastics. It may depend on the temperature of the liquid or bottle or how the plastic is reused.

What should I avoid?

To minimize exposure to BPA, the National Toxicology Program recommends that people avoid microwaving plastic food containers or washing them in the dishwasher with harsh detergents. Repeated exposure to high temperatures and harsh cleaning agents, like most dishwashing detergents, can deteriorate the plastic and release BPA.

Additionally, some sources, such as NTP, have advised consumers to avoid hard, clear plastic containers with the number seven on the bottom. While the chemical industry maintains that plastic bottles contain little BPA and leach trace amounts too low to be harmful to humans, some companies have voluntarily elected to sell BPA-free products. Nalgene sells BPA-free water bottles, and retailers such as Toys R Us and Wal-Mart offer baby bottles and other children's products that are BPA-free.

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