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Scientists from South Korea and Japan analyzed sand and seawater samples from beaches in 19 countries. They found BPA to be ubiquitous. Substantial amounts of the chemical—used in can liners, paper receipts and plastic products including food and beverage containers—littered all of the beaches, peaking at upwards of 200 milligrams of BPA per kilogram of sand in Greece. That would be equivalent to about 200 credit cards scattered across an American football field.
"The high BPA concentrations found on sandy beaches in this study should be a global concern," write the authors.
Scientists had already shown that people can be exposed to BPA through many sources including the air, food and water. "This is another study inventorying the extent of plastics contaminating our living environment," Rolf Halden, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, who was not involved in the study, told EHN. "It makes us aware that when we lie on the beach, we're not only lying on a bed of sand but a bed of plastics."
BPA-containing plastics break down over time into tiny pieces, known as microplastics and nanoplastics, often with the help of the sea, surf and sand. The sand samples tested by the researchers included these fragments mixed with sand, as well as sand particles on which BPA and other chemicals have hitched a ride. They discovered that BPA concentrations were significantly higher in the sand than in seawater, and varied widely between beaches. A factor of nearly 10,000 separated levels in sands sampled from Greece and Slovenia, for example. Samples from six U.S. beaches ranged between 0.4 and 45 milligrams per kilogram, or parts per million.
The BPA concentrations uncovered in the new study surprised Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Parts per million quantities, in many of these places, is pretty outrageous," Zoeller, who was not involved in the study, told EHN.
Zoeller noted that exposure to such highly contaminated sand could be enough to cause health effects. However, he also cautioned that the study faced some significant limitations. "It's difficult to extrapolate from these numbers. They don't represent some average for a country, or even a single beach," he said. "Still, everywhere they looked they found it."
In a statement to EHN, Steven G. Hentges, senior director of the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group at the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, said that "government agencies around the world consider BPA to have a low potential to accumulate to any appreciable extent in organisms that come into contact with it in the environment." BPA is "one of the most widely studied chemicals in the world, and government scientists around the globe have found that it does not pose a health risk at typical exposure level," he stated.
Thousands of peer-reviewed studies from academics, however, have concluded that absorbing or ingesting BPA may harm people at doses 20,000 times lower than what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says is safe—doses comparable to levels at which most of us are exposed. In November 2019, EHN published a year-long investigation which found U.S. regulators were willfully ignoring research that increasingly links low-dose BPA exposures to harmful health impacts ranging from birth defects to cancer.
"This is a chemical people should not be exposed to," Frederick vom Saal, a professor of biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told EHN. He lamented the lack of progress in the U.S. on regulating BPA. "There are other parts of the world that are taking this seriously," said vom Saal, who was not involved in the new study. France banned the use of the chemical in food and beverage packaging and utensils after an assessment by the French Agency for Food, Environmental Health and Safety determined that it is hazardous at much lower levels than the FDA considers hazardous.
Beachgoers may be particularly at risk due to the use of sunscreen and other oils and lotions. Vom Saal published a study in 2014 that found chemical mixtures used in a variety of personal care products facilitate the movement of BPA and other chemicals through the skin. More than 300 different chemicals can act as permeation enhancers. The use of hand sanitizer before handling receipts can increase BPA absorption through the skin by up to 200-fold, according to vom Saal's study. Beachgoers today, amidst a pandemic, may well be lathering up with sanitizer, too.
"BPA is a very sticky chemical," said vom Saal. "So, would it stick to sand? Absolutely. And if you're using sunscreen or skin lotions or hand sanitizer, then this stuff goes right through your skin."
Meanwhile, Halden's research team has detected BPA and other molecules from commonly used plastics in liver and fat of all 47 human tissue samples investigated.
"These are materials we're using on a tremendous scale without thinking about their afterlife and the consequences they pose to our health," said Halden.
Bum Gun Kwon from Chosun College of Science and Technology in South Korea, and author on the study, expressed the same concern. "Although there may be differences in degrees, large amounts of discarded plastic are too common," he told EHN in an email.
"Strict new rules for the use of sandy beaches should be set and followed," said Kwon. "For example, rules restricting the use of plastic materials derived from petroleum."
Banner photo: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash
Exposure to minuscule amounts of bisphenol-A can cause a multitude of health problems, including effects on the developing brain, heart, and ovaries, according to a paper published on Thursday that integrates data from several animal studies.
The findings build on a body of evidence that absorbing or ingesting the ubiquitous chemical may harm people at doses 20,000 times lower than what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says is safe — doses comparable to levels at which most of us are exposed.
"This should change how the FDA and other people look at the safety of BPA," Jerry Heindel, former health scientist administrator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author on the new paper, told EHN.
The studies were part of an unprecedented $30 million-dollar project co-led by the FDA called the Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity, or Clarity for short. Launched in 2012, Clarity combines a traditional regulatory guideline study from the government and investigational studies from academics with the aim of reconciling a long-standing dispute over data and conclusions on the health effects of BPA.
Academic scientists for decades have linked the chemical—found in plastic containers, food can liners, and paper receipts—to a wide array of health problems including cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility, and behavioral problems. BPA does its damage, in large part, by mimicking and messing with hormones in the body. And it is just one of hundreds of such endocrine-disrupting chemicals we encounter every day.
However, despite this mounting evidence of harm, the FDA has maintained BPA's safety and dismissed findings from independent scientists that BPA can harm people at very low doses—even when relatively high doses prove innocuous.
"Guideline studies have not provided much evidence of harm. But academics are finding harm all over the place," Pat Hunt, a geneticist at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., who was not involved in Clarity, told EHN.
So far, the Clarity effort has fallen well short of its goal to bridge that gap.
Cheryl Rosenfeld, a biologist at the University of Missouri, author of the new paper, and a Clarity investigator. (Credit: University of Missouri)
In November 2019, EHN published a year-long investigation of the FDA's handling of BPA science, including Clarity. It found a "willing blindness" among U.S. regulators to modern science on endocrine-disruptors, and concluded that they may be operating on the fringes of scientific integrity, possibly with the intent to keep the current testing and regulatory regime intact.
The FDA's traditional targets for tests, such as weighing organs and looking for overt signs of toxicity, are generally insensitive to the unique and often subtle effects of BPA and other endocrine disruptors, such as behavioral changes or infertility years down the road.
"The difference in regulation that would be required to account for this low-dose effect is huge. I'm not sure the FDA has the courage to do that," Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and an author on the new paper, told EHN. "BPA is big money. The FDA is sensitive to that."
The FDA released its Clarity Core study, a comprehensive report from the government's side of the project, in 2018. But no comparable publication has combined the academics' independently published findings. A government-led integrated report that pulls together findings from both the government and academic scientists was scheduled for completion by the end of 2019. It has yet to be released.
"We felt we needed to make our own report, to be sure our voices would be heard," Cheryl Rosenfeld, a biologist at the University of Missouri, Clarity investigator, and an author on the new paper, told EHN.
Eight of the 10 academics who have published studies as part of Clarity contributed to the new paper. Because all of the Clarity investigators shared tissues from the same rats and followed the same study protocols, much of the noise that typically makes comparisons between studies difficult was eliminated. The team leveraged this opportunity to apply a novel statistical approach to look for patterns across different datasets generated in the laboratories of multiple investigators using organs from the same animals.
"We combined everyone's data to see what the picture showed," said Rosenfeld. "It's correlation, not causation. But, ultimately, we were able to show that low doses of BPA don't just target one system, they go after multiple systems." If there was a low-dose effect on the mammary glands, for example, there was likely also a low-dose effect on the spleen in the same animals.
In all, the new paper links BPA to interrelated impacts on the brain, prostate, urethra, mammary gland, uterus, ovary, spleen, heart, and body fat.
In an emailed response, an FDA spokesperson said the agency "along with other global food safety authorities, has extensively evaluated the totality of available evidence on the safety of BPA. The weight of the evidence shows that BPA is safe for its authorized uses in food packaging."
The spokesperson said the agency has not reviewed the new study but "will continue to monitor scientific developments and take steps as appropriate to protect public health."
Hunt and others said the new study should be a red flag for the FDA.
"It's easy for a regulator to dismiss a study or handful of studies. But when you have this series of studies of the same animals and see correlations across the studies, that gives you much more confidence," said Hunt. "This strengthens the conclusion that these low dose effects are real, and can't be dismissed as spurious."
Most effects across the studies appeared at the lowest dose tested in Clarity: 2.5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day, which falls in the upper range of what an average person is believed to be exposed to.
However, human biomonitoring studies may underestimate actual exposures. Hunt co-authored a paper published in December that found the tests used by federal agencies to estimate exposure to BPA are woefully inaccurate. "If we are being exposed to much higher levels than we think we are, and if these animal studies are finding effects at increasingly lower doses," she said, "then that suggests we have a real need to reconsider the safety issues here."
In the U.S., what the government considers a safe exposure level for BPA — 50 micrograms of BPA per day per kilogram of body weight — has remained untouched for more than 30 years. Europe dropped its safety limit to 4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day in 2015.
The FDA generally assumes an increasing-dose-increasing-harm relationship in its evaluation of chemicals. A dose-response curve should therefore always be monotonic, according to the agency, which means it will never change direction from positive to negative, or vice versa.
Researcher Pat Hunt with lab mice in her Washington State University lab. (Credit: Lynne Peeples)
When they deem a dose of a chemical safe, their investigation typically follows an efficient, seemingly common-sense method. They start by exposing lab animals to extremely high doses of the chemical, incrementally drop the doses until they no longer detect obvious harm, then cut that last number down by a margin of safety to create a "safe" exposure limit. As a result, they may not necessarily have tested health effects at that dose — or at any lower doses.
"How many additional studies will be required for all chemicals since we haven't been going low enough?" Bernard Robaire, a reproductive toxicologist at McGill University in Montreal, who was not involved in Clarity, told EHN. His own research dating back to the 1970s identified effects of hormones and hormone mimics that were not monotonic. "Non-monotonicity is not new," he said. Robaire suggested that the new findings do lend credence to the growing concerns about the health effects of BPA and other endocrine disruptors.
Laura Vandenberg, an environmental health researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's School of Public Health, who was not involved in Clarity, also noted the agency's reluctance to accept new science and independent evidence of harm. "The FDA has suggested that all the effects that occur at lowest dose — whether in the academic studies or in their Core study — are spurious effects," she told EHN. "This analysis would suggest that they can't just hold their nose and pretend something is not real."
BPA is also just the tip of a very large iceberg. Many other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including BPA replacements such as bisphenol-S (BPS), may raise the risk of health problems. Evidence suggests that these chemicals may even be exacerbating the effects of COVID-19. The people at most risk from the virus have underlying conditions such as obesity or diabetes.
"We can't say endocrine disruptors are why people are getting fatter or have diabetes," said Hunt. "But we can see from animal models that this is what we would predict from exposure."
It remains unclear as to how the new paper will play into the final Clarity report, or if the government will respond with any changes in how they assess the safety and regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
"We need to hear from the FDA," said Vandenberg. "If they are going to decide that the academic work was not helpful, I want them to explain why."
Banner photo: BPA testing in the lab of Cheryl Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri researcher. (Credit: Cheryl Rosenfeld)
It's an uncomfortable, often embarrassing problem—having to pee a lot, but not getting relief when you go.
For older men, this problem is increasingly common and can go beyond the awkward and cause real damage to the bladders or kidneys. In extreme cases it can be fatal.
New research out this month may have uncovered a dangerous combination of chemical exposure and hormone changes later in life as a culprit in obstructive voiding disorder, which refers to "urgency [and] increased frequency of urination, low urine flow pressure, and incomplete bladder emptying, which can lead to acute kidney injury," the authors wrote in the study published this month in the International Journal of Molecular SciencesInternational Journal of Molecular Sciences.
As men age they develop benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate. Nearly all men, if they live long enough, will develop it and "if left unchecked they will have urinary retention" problems, William Ricke, professor, researcher and Director of the University of Wisconsin O'Brien Center of Research Excellence in Benign Urology and co-author of the new study, told EHN.
"Acute urinary retention if left unchecked by a urologist, urine can back up into kidneys and, in mouse models, those kidneys start to look like another bladder," Ricke said. "You don't have kidneys, you die."
In the new study of lab mice, Ricke and colleagues have linked the combination of exposure to the ubiquitous chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) around the time of birth and elevated estrogen levels as an adult to urinary disorders, kidney problems and enlarged prostates and bladders.
The study in mice is the first to show that BPA—a chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen—along with the elevated natural estrogen levels men experience as they age can collectively combine to induce prostate, bladder and kidney problems. This one-two punch of exposure during genital development and hormone changes with age can leave men with urinary issues and prostate enlargement, which can wreak havoc on their health.
BPA is a key ingredient in polycarbonate plastic, making the plastic much more durable and stronger. It is pervasive in food and beverage containers, canned goods and store receipts—and us. More than 90 percent of people in the U.S. have BPA in their bodies. And that may be an underestimate, as recent research has found that tests used by federal scientists "dramatically" undercount BPA and other chemical exposures.
BPA has been linked to a range of health problems including cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility and behavioral problems. Previous research has also shown BPA can disrupt proper development of male genitals. Health professionals have long known that as men age, levels of the hormone testosterone decrease and levels of estrogen increase.
Elevated levels of estrogen can spur enlarged prostates in men, which is a major cause of urinary issues. But not all men experiencing urinary issues have an enlarged prostate, Fredrick vom Saal, senior author of the new study and a professor of biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told EHN.
But it does seem that excess estrogen—whether it's the natural hormone increasing with age or the synthetic estrogen mimic BPA—feeds into urinary issues.
Vom Saal and colleagues exposed some mice to BPA during fetal development, and then checked for bladder, kidney, prostate and urinary issues in the mice as they aged later and hormone balances changed.
"Animals exposed to BPA … during perinatal development were more likely than negative controls to have urine flow/kidney problems and enlarged bladders, as well as enlarged prostates," vom Saal and co-authors wrote.
Vom Saal said BPA exposure during development "hypersensitized the whole system for subsequent exposure to those hormones." So, when estrogen levels naturally start increasing as the male mice age, those exposed to BPA as fetuses and babies were more susceptible to experience the urinary and health issues.
"These critical periods of exposure [during development] are setting up those individuals for sensitivity to those hormones for the rest of their life," vom Saal said.
"All of the estrogens you're exposed to combine to impact the severity of this disease as you age," vom Saal said. "And the most abundant external source of estrogenic activity is BPA."
Ricke said "time will tell" how much the new study will inform us about humans' development of prostate and urinary issues. However, previous studies in humans confirm that additional estrogen exposure can be associated with prostate issues later in life, he said.
"We've seen that higher estrogen levels often occur in African American boys developing in pregnant woman—the estrogen levels are higher in circulation—and in those men prostate cancer is much more aggressive, and incidences are higher," Ricke said, adding that next research steps would include trying to further understand what the mouse model they used would mean for humans.
He added that, while most men in the U.S. have access to medical care that can address the problems identified in the study, these are still potentially fatal issues in most of the world.
"We're fortunate to live in the Western world, for many men throughout the world, particularly in developing countries, they still don't have access to urologists."
Banner photo: Credit: darshan1234/flickr
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