Monica Laurlund and her family joined the study to learn first-hand if BPA was in their diet and if it was possible to remove the chemical.
Hormone-disrupting chemicals in water bottles and other food packaging have been getting lots of press in recent years amid worries that they can leach into our food – and our bodies. But families, it turns out, can reduce their levels of BPA and phthalates dramatically in a matter of days.
Researchers from the Breast Cancer Fund and Silent Spring Institute – nonprofit organizations dedicated to eliminating environmental toxins – took over the diets of five California families for three days. Each family of four was provided with freshly prepared organic meals and snacks stored in glass and stainless steel containers. Nothing they ate was packaged in plastic or canned.
Before the “intervention,” the parents’ levels of Bisphenol A and phthalates – as measured by urine samples – were a little higher than the average U.S. adult. Levels for the children (each family had two, ages 3 to 11) were about average.
After three days on the intervention diet, the families’ levels of BPA dropped an average of more than 60 % and their levels of phthalates were cut in half. When the families returned to their normal diets, urine levels of these chemicals shot back up.
There isn’t yet enough clinical data to determine the exact health benefits of the change, but Connie Engel, Ph.D., program coordinator for The Breast Cancer Fund and study co-author, points out that families are exposed to these chemicals on a constant basis. BPA is used to make plastics, including the lining of food cans. Phthalates are used to make plastics flexible, and are found in many food packages. The chemicals have been shown to interfere with hormones in the body, and have been associated with effects on the developing brain and reproductive system.
Engel says these effects have been found at levels below the exposure limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, making it worth families’ time to limit exposure. “You’re reducing exposure to a chemical that’s constantly being linked to health problems in laboratory studies and research,” she says.
Though the families in the study had their BPA-free meals catered, Engel says most families could change their habits and reduce exposure easily, a little at a time.
• Switch from plastic water bottles to glass or stainless steel.
• Reduce your reliance on canned foods. Fatty, salty or acidic foods seem to absorb the most BPA and phthalates. The Breast Cancer Fund tested more than 300 products and named coconut milk, soup, meat, vegetables, meals (e.g. ravioli in sauce), juice, fish, beans, meal-replacement drinks and fruit as their top 10 to avoid.
• Switch from plastic to glass or stainless steel for food storage.
• Switch from plastic to glass for microwaving.
The switch from packaged to fresh foods, Engel points out, is healthy in other ways as well, and better for the environment. Cost wise, she says, “it kind of balances itself out.” Glass food containers, for instance, cost more but will last longer. And while fresh vegetables are more expensive than canned, dried beans are cheaper.
“When kids are young, before puberty, is when it’s most valuable to make these changes,” says Engel, as that is when hormone disruptors can do the most harm. “Even going one less can-based meal a week can be a start.”
But study authors don’t want to put the burden of change on families. “We need some systemic changes from companies and in how our government regulates what’s in food packaging,” Engel says. Via the Take Action link on the Breast Cancer Fund’s page dedicated to the food packaging study (www.breastcancerfund.org/foodpackagingstudy) families can contact their political representatives to express concerns about BPA.
The peer-reviewed study appears today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.