Experts are calling for the BPA content of packaging to be clearly labelled, after a new study showed that 86% of teenagers had the harmful chemical compound in their bodies.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound used in the manufacture of certain types of plastic, and can be found in some water bottles, till receipts, the inside of cans and bottle tops, as well as highly processed foods.
The chemical is known to disrupt the endocrine system, which controls how hormones are released into the body via several glands. BPA has similar properties to oestrogen, and can change how the body circulates sex hormone levels, and disrupt development. It has also been linked to cardiovascular disease and liver enzyme abnormalities. There is a higher risk of ingesting BPAs if products are exposed to high temperatures, or reused, for instance in the case of plastic bottles.
Teenagers are believed to be the demographic with the highest levels of exposure to BPA, according to researchers at the University of Exeter.
Tests on the urine of 94 17 to 19-year-olds selected from Exeter showed that most teenagers had BPA in their system, the research published in the journal BMJ Open revealed.
The subjects tried to reduce exposure to BPA, with methods including avoiding fruit and vegetables packed in plastic containers, tinned food, and microwaveable meals for a week.
Worryingly, the researchers found that the chemical was so widespread that trying to avoid food and packaging that contained BPA had no measurable impact on exposure. Only those with the highest levels showing some reduction. Participants also told researchers that they were unlikely to keep up a BPA-free diet, because of the difficulty in identifying foods containing the chemical compounds.
The authors of the study are now calling on retailers for better labelling on packaging so it is easier for consumers to buy BPA-free products.
The research is the latest to highlight health concerns surrounding BPA. In a 2017 study carried out by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh) found that employees who came into direct contact with BPA found they had urine levels around 70 times higher than the average adult.
However, in 2015 the European Food Safety Authority concluded that exposure to BPA was not a health concern, and that the quantity ingested by the average person does not pose any significant health risk. This stance was mirrored by the American Food and Drug Administration, which has stated that BPA is safe at low levels that occur in some foods based on a review of hundreds of studies.
"There's continued uncertainty about what might happen at lower exposure concentrations, because it's quite hard to do these studies," Professor Tamara Galloway, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter told IBTimes UK.
"Test tubes or animal studies have shown adverse effects to immune, reproductive and neurobehavioural health at concentrations similar to those of the general population," she added. "Biomonitoring studies of human populations have measured the concentrations of BPA in people's bodies and then seen if they correlate with any illnesses.
"Some of these studies have shown associations with cardiovascular and metabolic effects. Whilst uncertainty remains, official guidance is to try to reduce one's exposure by avoiding heavily packaged or processed diets, tinned foods, eating fresh produce and not heating meals in containers that might contain BPA. This is seen as a precautionary approach."
"At higher concentrations - much higher than the concentrations in our study - BPA can affect liver and kidney function and mammary gland development," added Professor Lorna Harries, Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics in an interview with IBTimes UK.
The authors of the study suggested that the decision taken by the French government to ban the use of BPA for items which contain food and drink was a wise decision.
"[It is] the prudent thing to do whilst uncertainty over health effects remain," said Professor Harries.
Dr Ruth Whitby of Doctify, who was not involved in the study, told IBTimes UK that BPA is easily excreted from the body. However, those concerned about consuming the chemical can avoid microwaving polycarbonate plastic food containers.
"Polycarbonate is strong and durable, but over time it may break down from overuse at high temperatures," she explained. "Reduce your use of canned foods. When possible, opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, particularly for hot food or liquids. Use baby bottles that are BPA free-as in Canada and America," she advised.