How dangerous is bisphenol A? | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 11.02.2013

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How dangerous is bisphenol A?

It's been banned in baby bottles since 2011, but is still allowed in food containers, despite links to deformities. Sweden's environment minister now wants a total ban on bisphenol A.

The substance has faced criticism for years. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a basic chemical used in many everyday products - CDs, thermal paper from receipts, mobile phones, motorcycle helmets and plastic bottles. But some studies appear to suggest that there is a link between BPA and a variety of illnesses and deformities.

BPA was developed in the 1930s, as scientists were looking for synthetic materials that could mimic the action of the female sex hormone estrogen. Soon it became apparent, however, that the estrogenic effects of BPA were relatively weak for therapeutic applications and other pharmaceuticals were better suited.

BPA is taken in with food


Bisphenol A was commonly used in baby bottles before it was banned in 2011

But BPA found an alternative use in the chemical industry as a basis for plastics and resins. Manufacturers appreciate its versatility, robustness, good electrical insulating properties and low flammability.

But BPA's hormonal effects still pose a problem. BPA particles can detach from the products and be ingested by the human body, especially through food. Studies show that, among other things, bisphenol A can dissolve in hot water. But even without a source of heat, some plastic coatings in food cans in which BPA is present pass it on to the food.

Deformities in infants possible

Imported estrogens may disrupt the human hormonal system. Some studies suggest there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Negative effects on sexuality are also possible. The use of BPA could also lead to deformities in infants. The EU therefore decided in 2011 to ban baby bottles containing BPA. In other areas, the EU Commission only placed limits on acceptable BPA concentration. France wants to ban the substance from all food packaging by 2015.

Sweden's Minister of the Environment Lena Ek, (Photo: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Lena Ek wants BPA to be banned completely

The most far-reaching attempt now comes from Sweden. Environment Minister Lena Ek wants a total ban on the chemical, as she wrote in a recent article for the "Svenska Dagbladet" newspaper. In doing so, she opened the door to similar demands from environmental associations. "Germany should follow the example of Sweden," said Ann-Katrin Sporkmann of Germany's Association for the Environment and Nature Protection (BUND). Since bisphenol A even has an effect in very low doses, setting a limit does not make sense, she said in an interview with DW.

Studies come to different conclusions

But Geneviewe de Bauw of the BPA Coalition, an alliance of BPA-manufacturing chemical companies, criticized the Swedish initiative: "In the spring we will have a detailed report on the safety of BPA in relation to food, which is currently being prepared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)." She said Ek was prematurely drawing conclusions about the results, which was not helpful for consumers and businesses.

Sporkmann said she doubted that the EFSA's assessment will bring clarity to the debate about the potential dangers of BPA: "The EFSA primarily assesses industry studies, which come to the conclusion that bisphenol A is not a problem."
Ek has thus already achieved one of her goals. Everyone seems to be talking about bisphenol A again.

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