In 2008, Nalgene stopped using a type of polycarbonate in its iconic water bottles because it included the estrogen-mimicking chemical BPA. Manufactures of baby bottles and sippy cups followed suit. And, in response to a request by the American Chemical Council, the US Food and Drug Administration imposed in 2012 a prohibition on the use of BPA in bottles and food storage containers.
But another common point of contact with BPA has been largely overlooked: canned food.
Of the 252 brands analyzed by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), only 12 percent use BPA-free cans for all of their products.
"The biggest problem is that people have no reliable way of knowing whether they are buying food that is laced with this toxic chemical," said Samara Geller, EWG database analyst. "Federal regulations do not require manufacturers to label their products to identify cans with BPA-based linings. By releasing this analysis, we hope to arm people with the critical information they need to avoid BPA and make smarter shopping decisions."
Canned food producers use bisphenol A, or BPA, to line the inside of cans in order prevents the metal from corroding and to protect the contents from bacterial contamination.
When consumed, though, the chemical can disrupt the endocrine system. Some studies have linked BPA exposure to decreased fertility, breast cancer, and developmental disorders. Some scientists say that exposure at a young age — or in utero — presents a particularly high risk.
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The EWG study recommends that the government restrict BPA levels in canned food, which are currently not regulated in the United States, to no more than 1 part per billion. EWG found BPA levels in canned food and baby formula as high as 385 parts per billion.
But the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) is confident that BPA does not pose a risk to consumer health.
"As expected, EWG cherry picked studies to support its flawed perspective on BPA while ignoring the weight of scientific evidence supporting its safety in food contact applications," said NAMPA's chairman John Rost, who holds Ph.D. in chemistry.
"[The report] was just Google searches and Facebook trolling to try to find out what companies were doing," Rost told VICE News. "It really doesn't add anything to the scientific debate about this issue."
NAMPA points to a pair of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studies that have led the agency to say BPA is safe at current levels in foods.
"A lot of the studies that have caused concern in the past weren't really relevant to human exposure," Rost said. "A lot of the things you might read, they might inject BPA directly into the bloodstream or, you know, use methods to bypass how humans are actually exposed to it."
And, Rost added, BPA is indispensable for modern food safety practices.
"There hasn't been a food-borne illness case from the failure of metal packaging in well over 35 years, which is trillions and trillions of cans," he said.
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EWG also takes issue with the unregulated use of BPA-free labels. The term BPA-free can mean all sorts of things and could actually include cans that include some amount of the chemical as a lining.
Regulated labeling would allow consumers — regardless of their beliefs about BPA — to make more informed decisions, said Geller.
"We are calling for a consensus definition and ideally that would come from a government regulation that brings everybody in line, so everybody's on the same page," she told VICE News.
Geller said information on BPA use was difficult to access.
"They were very elusive, didn't want to define what specific products or even what particular brand lines across their entire portfolio were BPA-free cans," she said. "Without these qualifying statements, it's really hard for consumers to gauge what's going on here."
Rost said that using BPA was ultimately better than gambling on alternative substances we know little or nothing about.
"The fact that we have so much knowledge about epoxy-based coatings and BPA, and it's been deemed safe, it makes me feel very comfortable consuming and feeding current canned food technologies to my family," he said.
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Follow Kate Jenkins on Twitter: @kateshannonjenk