BPA (bisphenol A) is a chemical so “deadly” that New York Times columnist Nick Kristof — presumably the most accomplished toxicological expert never to take a chemistry class — refuses to touch cash register receipts because they contain small amounts of the chemical. Kind of makes you wonder what he would do if you sent him a whole bunch of really terrible gifts with the receipts in the box.
Although it's off-topic a bit, my 2011 piece called "Why I Don't Write About Pottery from the Ming Dynasty," which was about Kristof and BPA, generated my all-time favorite hate comment . I couldn't live with myself if I didn't share it with you:
I haven't checked the stock price of Whole Foods today, but there might be reason for concern. I cannot begin to comprehend the effect that these findings will have on shoppers who are waltzing up and down the aisles of the store in a haze of orgasmic bliss every time they encounter a “BPA-free” sign, as if each one will add a few months to their lives. I hope they are not distracted enough to crash their Subarus on the way home.
The lesson: If you take a chemical with a very long, safe track record, and replace it with a similar, but newer one, you will end up a chemical with a much shorter track record (which might well also be safe). This is progress?
Yet, it is not all bad news. Environmental groups and academics, such as Professor Freddie Vom Saal, who has spent his entire career trying to find anything wrong with BPA, and now probably BPS, still have 24 letters left to follow "BP," which should guarantee job security for many years to come.
Let’s take a quick look at what all of this means.
A very small amount of BPA leaches out of the linings, so between this and the fact that plastics are ubiquitous, virtually everyone has minuscule, but measurable amounts of BPA in their urine. Why urine? Because BPA does not stick around very long. It is metabolized and excreted. Good luck measuring it in blood.
The knock on BPA is that is is an “estrogen mimic” that will screw up your reproductive system, and that of your kids. The fact that it has been lining cans and making sippy cups for more than 50 years, and that the FDA has declared it safe seems to be of little comfort. So, does it mimic estrogen? Sure does. But it does a really terrible job. Let's take a look.
First of all, chemically, BPA doesn't look a whole lot like estrogen. The area in blue is where they are similar. The rest of the molecule, not so much.
For those of you who are not into chemical structures, the following illustrates the same point:
And if estrogen and BPA are so chemically dissimilar, perhaps there is some biochemical evidence to back this up. Well, it just so happens that there is.
Estrogen binds to estrogen receptors 12,500-fold more strongly than BPA does. And there is far more estradiol in your blood than BPA. So, what are the chances that BPA is going to make a difference in your sex hormones? Maybe zero?
If that seems like nothing to worry about, check this out: From the always reliable Dr. Oz show from 2012: “Since isoflavones [chemicals found in soybeans] bind to estrogen receptors, they can have similar effects to estrogen, but not nearly as strong as animal-based estrogen. Human estrogen is over 1000-times stronger.”
Dr. Oz actually got something right:
Well, ain’t that interesting? Even though soy is full of isoflavones (e.g. genistein, a popular antioxidant is one of them), it’s OK, because it binds only about 1/1,000th as tightly as estrogen. My math is pretty awful, but it looks like BPA binds to estrogen receptors about 10 times worse than this, yet this is dangerous because it is an “estrogen-mimic.”
Perhaps, people who are stuffing their faces with soy might want to realize that they are eating large amounts of something that behaves more like estrogen than does BPA, which has Kristof wearing an Ebola suit just to handle cash register receipts. Doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, does it?
The fear du jour comes from the comparative effects of BPA and BPS on the number of neurons in zebrafish brains. And if you'd really, really like to read more about it, here is the news release from the scientists at the University of Calgary.
I’m not going to bother delving into the details of a scientific study of something that is very far from being relevant to human health. Besides, this could be good news. I could use a few more neurons before even attempting the Times' Saturday crossword puzzle.
In the end, this is just more of the same:
1. Find a chemical you don't like (better still, one you have never heard of), run a bunch of studies that are either irrelevant, poorly designed, or both.
2. If you run enough experiments, you'll almost certainly find something wrong, or at least something that sounds wrong.
3. If one lousy study is good, then 10 are better.
4. Get the press involved.
5. Go back to step 1.
Finally, since I have been known to be a bit critical now and then, I have a confession to make: I go to Whole Foods—solely for their apple pie. To some degree, this makes me a hypocrite, but I have a legitimate excuse. Since all addictions are now in the DSM-5, there must be a diagnostic code somewhere in there for Whole Foods apple pie. Those bad boys are pure evil. I admit it—I am powerless against Whole Foods apple pies, and my life has become unmanageable. I now believe that there is a higher power that will restore me to sanity (but if you ask my family, it better be a damn high power).
I am one month into recovery.