BPA use in doubt as Europe proposes vastly more protective health limits

European regulators on Thursday took sharp aim at the common plastic additive BPA, slashing the recommended daily dose by 100,000 and all but ensuring the chemical cannot be used in any product coming into contact with food.

The decision, if it stands, promises to revolutionize the food contact materials industry—particularly food packaging and processing equipment—and bring BPA regulations in line with health research that scientists have been warning about for decades.

BPA is a key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins—added to everything from Tupperware to food can liners. Scientists have long known the BPA leaches out of plastic and into food; virtually every human tested on the planet has some BPA in their blood.

BPA: No safe dose

Until Thursday, regulators have long held that some amount of BPA in our food and bodies is acceptable, with the US safety level about 12 times higher than European standards. But scientists have known since the 1990s that BPA has potentially harmful effects on reproduction, brain development, mammary gland health, and metabolism, among others.

The new proposed rule, from the European Food Safety Authority—Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—makes the regulations congruent with that science.

A dose of BPA from a glass bottle with a BPA-laced sealant in the cap would likely be too high under Europe’s proposed rule, experts told EHN.

“They are acknowledging what many of us have known for many years: Even at very low doses, BPA causes harm,” said Laura Vandenberg, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences.

“Unfortunately that’s a decision that’s two decades too late. A whole generation of children have been allowed to be exposed to levels potentially causing harm.”

BPA rule ‘decades late’

In 2015, the EFSA set a temporary safety level of 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight for daily BPA exposure, what regulators call a “tolerable daily intake.” For comparison, that’s roughly the amount of folic acid doctors recommend pregnant women take daily to ensure the health of their child.

In its draft re-evaluation of BPA, published today, EFSA’s expert Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes and Processing Aids recommended setting the tolerable daily intake at 0.04 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day – a 100,000-fold drop.

That’s the equivalent to taking the healthy serving size for cake from one slice to one-thousandths of a grain of flour.

The U.S., meanwhile, set the equivalent daily exposure level for BPA in 1988 at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. It remains unchanged today.

“Thank goodness for the EFSA advisors, because this is decades late in coming,” said Terry Collins, a green chemist at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The challenge such lowering will produce for the chemical enterprise is massive, but for the sake of Europe’s fertility and its general health, regulators cannot back off this essential step.”

“All of Europe—every pocket of the ecosphere—is contaminated with BPA,” Collins added. “You can find it in translucent shrimp at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. It’s everywhere.”

Hormone hijackers

The European recommendation comes as regulators assess new scientific evidence on BPA and its impact to hormone, brain and body development, especially to the immune system, the EFSA said.

“This updated draft is the result of a thorough assessment over several years,” said Dr. Claude Lambré, chair of the CEP Food Contact Panel, in a statement. “The new scientific studies that have emerged in literature have helped us address important uncertainties about BPA’s toxicity.”

In the US, federal regulators have examined but discounted the same evidence via a process that an EHN.org investigation found to be highly problematic and “wilfully blind.”

The American Chemistry Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor, hijacking the body’s hormone functions at extraordinarily tiny concentrations. “What we’ve learned from literally tens of thousands of papers, is that endocrine activity is stimulated by very tiny quantities of endocrine hormones,” Collins told EHN.org for its investigation, “Exposed: How willful blindness keeps BPA on shelves and contaminating our bodies.”

“Really, if you look at the data, we shouldn’t be making these compounds, period.”

BPA in food, receipts

The proposed EFSA rules do have their limits.

They apply only to food-contact materials. BPA is also used in non-food applications, chiefly in paper used for cash register receipts and paper airline boarding passes and baggage tickets—though food is thought to be the major exposure route for BPA.

And the ruling only applies to BPA, not to the host of chemical cousins like BPS and BPF that have proliferated in recent years as a replacement for BPA. While consumers and regulators have focused on banning BPA, most of the chemical replacements have the same harmful health effects.

But the new limits are a start of a revolutionary new approach to assessing potential threats posed by chemicals used in everyday products, chemists said—one that should ripple across the Atlantic to the United States and throughout the chemical industry.

“There are consequences for industry, but there are also consequences for human health,” said Thomas Zoeller, Emeritus Professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“This is just a sledge hammer that is telling us that our risk assessment strategies are simply not working.”

The EFSA draft rules are open for public comment until Feb. 8, 2022. You can comment on the BPA health standards here on the EFSA’s “public consultations” page