There is a reason I stick to relatively easily modifiable practices and how they might (possibly!) improve health and prevent disease. I like fun exercise, real food, wool socks in the wintertime, and sunshine. I don't like to think about the years of farm pesticide waste seeping into the groundwater, or the estrogenic compounds in plastic. Plastic compounds are ubiquitous and incredibly convenient. In all our packaged foods. Sippy cups. Tupperware. IV bags and tubing. Coating paper receipts. In the lining of canned foods and soda. The most famous is BPA (found primarily in receipts and number 7 plastic), but all sorts of plastic contain all sorts of weird compounds.
|Image from Flickr Creative Commons|
So we muddle through, minimizing harm, and the way I approach plastics is to slowly transition away from them and avoid heating anything (or putting hot food) in them. (I try not to think about those years and years of microwaved lean cuisines). I get milk delivered from a local organic dairy in glass bottles. Is that enough? Some (many of you, perhaps) would say no. But aluminum lunch containers are expensive (and have plastic lids that tend not to fit as closely as plastic on plastic), and many of the plastic ones I have are still serviceable and attractive. Canned foods are also tricky - on a mostly "paleo" "real foods" "avoiding processed food" diet the major canned foods will be coconut milk and tomato products (maybe canned pumpkin?). In general I made an effort to avoid these except for maybe once per week, figuring, again, the dose makes the poison, and tomato sauce makes anything more palatable for the kids (a variation of the old parenting trick of putting ketchup on everything.)
Ignorance is bliss, really. At the end of November a research letter was published in JAMA- "Canned Soup Consumption and Urinary Bisphenol A: A Randomized Crossover Trial." In this little Harvard School of Public Health Study, student and staff volunteers consumed 12 ounces of either fresh (prepared without canned ingredients) or canned (Progresso brand) soup daily for lunch (they were vegetarian varieties of course - this is HSPH!). For the first 5 day period, the soup was consumed daily. After a 2-day washout, the treatment assignments were reversed. Urine samples were taken on the 4th and 5th days of each phase. Urinary BPA was found in 100% of Progresso consumers and 77% of fresh soup consumers, and following the 5 days of canned soup, urinary BPA was 1221% higher than the urinary BPA of the fresh soup consumers.
"The increase in urinary BPA concentrations following canned soup consumption is likely a transient peak of uncertain duration. The effect of such intermittent elevations in urinary BPA concentration is unknown. The absolute urinary BPA concentrations observed following canned soup consumption are among the most extreme reported in a nonoccupational setting."
I have to admit I'd canned (heh heh) Progresso and other pre-prepared soups from my eating list a long time ago due to the biochemistry-happy omega-6 fest in the list of ingredients… as expected from any processed food maker trying to scratch a profit by using the least expensive commodity items. I try to use marinara sauce from a glass jar whenever possible (we'll ignore the plastic seal around the top), and I'm looking for good convenient alternatives to canned coconut milk… but the pantry still has some canned items, to be sure. And certainly the cardboard box variety of foods has plastic in the lining as well, right? I make more and more of my own bone broth, but sometimes you just need a bit of stock on hand. Am I being hopelessly neurotic and silly worrying about plastics, BPA, and canned items (and handling receipts as little as possible)?
Well, 2011 has not been a friendly year for BPA. A month before the research letter in JAMA alarmed the Progresso soup executives, another scary article was published in Pediatrics: Impact of Early-Life Bisphenol A Exposure and Executive Function in Children (free full text!). A prospective observational study, so the typical caveats apply.
Urine was collected from pregnant women at 16 and 26 weeks, and at birth) and later from the resultant babies at 1, 2, and 3 years of age. The results? Well, BPA was detected in >97% of the gestational and child urine samples. With adjustment for confounders, each 10-fold increase in gestational BPA concentrations was associated with more anxious and depressed behavior on standardized scales, along with poorer emotional control. This was true more of girl babies than of boys. The urinary levels in the children themselves didn't make much difference in behavior, and there was no difference between girls and boys.
There was another scary article about exposure of infants to breastfeeding moms replete with BPA that I can't find now, and this cute article from January in JAMA about nematodes and BPA. I avoid gluten (for the most part) due to some skin effects and general creepiness, and I don't see why I should feel differently about estrogenic compounds leaching from plastics.
But no, I don't leap across the table and grab the Capri Sun out of my kid's hand at the birthday party either. Nor will I add a machete to my list of standard kitchen tools so that I can make coconut milk from scratch. I drink from a plastic-free water container at the gym and the next set of lunchbox containers will be metal… but life has to be lived. And at least I can worry about these things affecting my children, rather than tuberculosis, mines, or revolution.