Dietary Exposure to BPA and Phthalates May Be Hard to Avoid

Our water bottles and personal care products may be labeled BPA- and phthalate-free, but that may not be enough to prevent significant dietary exposure to these chemicals at levels far above those deemed safe by the EPA.

BPA and phthalates are known endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Prenatal exposure to BPA is associated with anxiety, hyperactivity and depression in girls and prenatal exposure to phthalates is linked to male reproductive system abnormalities. In both genders, childhood exposure is linked to increased allergies, eczema and congestion. In adults, BPA may increase the risk of breast, uterine and prostate cancer, and phthalates have been linked to changes in sperm quality.

Study tests dietary exposure to BPA and phthalates

Researchers were quite surprised by the results of a study designed to test dietary exposure to phthalates and bisphenol A, better known as BPA, in two sets of families. One set of 5 families was given written handouts on reducing BPA and phthalate exposure, while the other set of 5 families was given a 5-day “complete replacement diet” consisting of all local, fresh and organic foods, none of which were prepared or stored in plastic containers.

After the intervention, researchers tested the families’ urinary concentrations of BPA and phthalate metabolites, with surprising results. They expected the families consuming the organic replacement diet would have significantly lower levels of such metabolites. However, they found that the median phthalate metabolite concentrations in the families who ate the replacement diet were 24 times higher during the intervention than at baseline. No significant changes in these levels were seen in the families given the written instructions. In terms of BPA, median metabolite levels doubled between baseline and intervention in the replacement diet families, and no significant changes in the families given the written instructions.

“We were extremely surprised to see these results,” said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, lead author of the study and an environmental health pediatrician at the UW School of Public Health and at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “We expected the concentrations to decrease significantly for the kids and parents in the catered diet group,” she said.

Phthalates and BPA high in organic foods as well

In a previous study carried out in 2011 and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, another set of investigators provided a replacement diet to families and observed the expected result: phthalates fell by 53 percent and BPA levels declined by 66 percent. Therefore, the current team explored the new results further by testing the foods given to the families eating the replacement diet. High concentrations of phthalates were found in dairy products (milk, cream, butter and cheese), ground coriander, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. These results may partially explain why children’s levels in the current study spiked even higher than adults, as the children may have consumed more dairy products. As to how the phthalate levels came to be so high in organic, glass-bottled milk, the researchers could only speculate that perhaps using soft plastic tubing when collecting milk from the cows may have contributed.

The results of the study led researchers to estimate that children from 3 to 6 years old are exposed to about 183 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight daily. The recommended safe limit proposed by the US EPA is 20 milligrams per kilogram per day. The researchers noted the difficulty we as consumers have in limiting our dietary exposure to these chemicals, even when choosing supposedly safer organic, local and fresh foods prepared without plastic.

It’s important to note that the sample size for this study is quite small and the results could be related to a specific product or supplier, so we cannot yet generalize anything specific (such as to avoid organic, spices or dairy products) from these results. However the larger point is that we as consumers have little control, no matter how carefully we choose our food, over our exposure to BPA and phthalates. New federal regulations may be required to effect real reductions in exposure to these dangerous chemicals. So far, the government has made glacial progress in recognizing and acting on these chemicals, although last year the FDA did outlaw BPA in baby bottles and in 2008 phthalates were removed from children’s toys. Apparently, it isn’t enough.

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