A controversial plastic additive is said to affect foetuses and increase the risk of breast cancer.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has outlawed baby bottles containing the controversial chemical bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA.
Last week, Motsoaledi signed a document containing regulations declaring the illegality of the “manufacture, importation, exportation and sale” of infant bottles containing BPA. The relevant regulations were published in the October 21 Government Gazette and took immediate effect. The step against BPA is a first for an African country.
The Cancer Association of South Africa has started to offer BPA-free baby bottles in exchange for those that contain the chemical at its offices countrywide.
BPA is a building block from which polycarbonate plastic is made. It creates hard, clear and shatterproof plastic — ideal for baby bottles. However, according to international health authorities, the chemical is also a “hormone disrupter” and “mimics” the female hormone oestrogen. They say BPA can cause negative “changes” in foetuses and infants.
The health department’s food control director, Andries Pretorius, said that at this stage government was not aware of any South African companies manufacturing plastic with BPA. He said the state would therefore concentrate on training port customs officials of the provincial health departments to prevent BPA baby bottle imports from entering the country.
Pretorius added that environmental health practitioners employed by municipalities would in future also inspect stores that sell baby bottles to determine if they were adhering to the BPA ban. He insisted: “If any bottles containing the substance are identified in stores they will be confiscated and disposed of.” Although the legislation only refers to baby bottles, the health department would also encourage outlets not to sell “sippy cups” and food bowls containing the chemical, Motsoaledi told the Mail & Guardian.
In the past three years, the European Union, Canada, France, as well as the American states of New York and California, have taken similar steps against BPA. China, once the world’s leading manufacturer of BPA baby bottles, outlawed production in June, and banned imports and sales of products containing the substance last month. Malaysia has announced it will implement a “total BPA ban” in March next year. Global action against BPA comes after increasing scientific evidence of the harm caused by the chemical.
Medical scientists have found that women’s risk of breast cancer is directly linked to their exposure to both natural and synthetic oestrogen. In tests done on mice, low, oral doses of BPA altered the rodents’ breast tissue to the same degree as cancer cells in the early stages of breast cancer.
Cancer Association of South Africa’s Carl Albrecht explained: “This shows that [BPA ingestion] could lead to the development of breast cancer later in the lives of babies who were continuously exposed to the substance and, in the case of boys, prostate cancer is a strong possibility.” More than 60 research papers on the influential medical database, Pubmed, a service of the United States Library of Medicine, link BPA and breast cancer.
Studies have also linked BPA to obesity, infertility, brain and thyroid dysfunction, heart disease, diabetes and early onset of puberty. Science has proved that BPA enters babies’ systems by “leaching” into milk and other liquids given to them in baby bottles, cups or food bowls that contain the chemical — particularly when the vessels are heated or warmed in a microwave.
According to Albrecht, “Up to 55 times more BPA molecules are released when a bottle is heated.” The Cancer Association warned that children below the age of three are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of BPA as they have far more meals a day than adults; they lack the enzymes which adults have that can neutralise man-made chemicals; and they have “sensitive” cells in developing organs such as the brain, breast and prostate that can be “disrupted” by BPA.
At present, though, there is no international scientific consensus on the potential dangers of low-dose BPA. Researchers have pointed out that it may take “many years” for the relevant studies to be published, as they will entail following and studying people who have been exposed to BPA from birth to adulthood.
“We’re dealing with a chemical that might only show its effects 30 years after ingestion and the effects might not be the same on everyone,” said Albrecht.
“It would therefore be outrageous to take any chances by exposing infants to a substance that later could result in them developing breast cancer and may have already done so.”
French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand is not prepared to gamble on the issue of BPA. He has taken research into the chemical so seriously that he’s backing legislation to outlaw its use in all food packaging in France from 2014, and in all packaging “aimed at children” from 2013. Yet, heated debates about the safety or not of BPA among plastic manufacturers and academics continue.
Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group, an organisation based in the United States that advocates for “health-protective policies,” insisted that such debate should end as studies proving that the chemical had harmful health effects “outnumber studies that found no risk by a nine-to-one margin”. BPA is pervasive in society. It is contained in the lining of food and soft drink cans, infant formula milk containers, CDs, DVDs and sundry plastic holders.
As canned food and cold drinks are heated for “hygienic purposes” before being distributed, a “significant amount of BPA is released into the food and liquid and therefore taken in orally by people”, Albrecht said. Receipts printed by ATMs and credit and debit card machines also often contain BPA.
The Environmental Working Group said this “thermal paper” was coated with a dye and a second chemical — usually BPA.
When the machine prints on the paper it is the heat that is generated that brings out the black lettering — eliminating the need for the machines to contain ink. “It is unclear how much of the BPA rubs off on your skin, but it’s possible for the chemical to get through your skin and into your blood stream,” said Albrecht.
The Cancer Association was therefore recommending that people wash their hands thoroughly after handling such receipts, particularly before working with food. The Environmental Working Group said scientific tests it commissioned found deposits of BPA on ATM and card machine receipts that were “250 to 1?000 times greater” than those found in baby bottles and canned food.
But because BPA in foods and liquids is “completely ingested”, this remained “by far” the most concerning route of exposure, according to Albrecht. He said the fact that BPA was found in canned fish had “severely complicated” the Cancer Association’s work against the disease. Albrecht explained that his organisation’s natural inclination was to advocate the eating of fish such as tuna and sardines that are often sold at affordable prices because consuming such types of fatty fish held many health benefits.
Studies have shown that such fish contains fatty acids that could, for example, decrease a woman’s chances of developing breast cancer by up to 70%. “Only one helping of this fish per week is needed to get these benefits,” said Albrecht. “But we can’t go promote this, as the ‘healthy’ fish is sold in cans that contain BPA that may increase the risk of breast cancer, so we’re faced with a Catch 22 situation — if we promote the fish, we also promote BPA.”
Albrecht said South Africa should “seriously consider” following France by implementing legislation to “force” plastic and food manufacturers to find alternatives to BPA as soon as possible. He said some food firms were “trying hard” to find a new BPA-free resin formula to use, but he added: “This is complex. Companies told me it will take five years to test the formula to make sure it works in terms of sealing the cans.”
Pretorius said the government was open to the idea. But it wanted to take its lead from the Codex Alimentarius Commission — an international food standards setting body run by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Health Organisation.
South Africa, which is a member of the Codex, would prefer to wait for it to establish allowable thresholds of BPA exposure, based on risk assessments, before implementing further legislation, said the food safety chief.
Mia Malan works for the Discovery Health Journalism Centre at Rhodes University
How to identify BPA-free plastic
- Bottles with the recycle triangle at the bottom, with the number seven and the letters “PC” are made of polycarbonate and contain BPA and need to be replaced.
- Bottles with the recycle triangle with the number seven and the letter “T” are made of triton, are BPA-free and do not need to be replaced.
- Bottles exhibiting the recycle triangle with the number five and the letters “PP” are made of polypropylene and are BPA-free and need not be replaced.
- Bottles with the recycle triangle with the number seven and the word “Other” are most probably polycarbonate containing BPA and need to be replaced.
- Bottles with no markings, manufactured from smoky, honey-coloured plastic are probably safe, but need to be checked with the distributor.
- Most clear plastic bottles with no markings, older than two years, are probably manufactured from polycarbonate, containing BPA and need to be replaced.
- Some baby bottles have no plastic recycling numbers imprinted on the bottom making identification tricky once a bottle had been taken out of its wrapper. When there is any doubt, do not gamble, rather replace the bottle.
In an effort to rid the country of BPA bottles, the Cancer Association of South Africa will provide you with a BPA-free baby bottle at no cost in exchange for each bottle that contains the chemical. The association has stock at all of its eight provincial offices. For more information visit www.cansa.org.za
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.