Back in 2012, when the FDA banned the chemical Bisphenol- A (or as it is more commonly known, BPA) in baby bottles and children’s sippy cups, parents breathed a collective sigh of relief. But as it turns out, this ban may not have been enough. Recent studies have found that BPA is present in many more products than initially thought- and the chemical itself does far more damage than scientists were previously aware. We spoke to Wilmington, NC dentist Dr. Michele Simpson about the findings of the newest study on BPA- and what these findings could mean for the development of your child’s teeth.
So what exactly is BPA- and why is it so bad? BPA, along with similar chemicals bisphenol S and bisphenol F, are chemicals added to in some plastics to add strength and durability. First developed in 1891, BPA was not widely used until 1955, following a 1953 discovery by two separate scientists that the compound was nearly unbreakable. Since then, it has been used in a wide array of products- from cups to cash register receipts, and even as a liner in aluminum cans that acts as a barrier against rusting. However, in 1992, a Stanford University researcher by the name of Dr. David Feldman made a startling discovery about BPA when studying estrogen activities. Feldman and his research team noticed the presence of an "estrogenic molecule" in a plastic container of yeast growing in the lab. The researchers realized the yeast was not synthesizing the estrogen itself- the estrogen was literally leaching out of the plastic container. The experiment was then replicated in a glass container, and shockingly, the estrogenic molecule did not appear.
Feldman and his team realized that the BPA in the container was responsible for the estrogen molecule, and began reaching out to manufacturers who use BPA in their products to alert them of the team’s findings. To their surprise, some manufacturers were already aware of the problem and were already conducting their own research on BPA. Soon after, BPA was officially found to be an "endocrine disrupting" chemical. This means that BPA can mimic or block hormones and disrupt the normal functions of the body- causing early puberty in children, and fertility problems later in life. Today, in addition to those initial findings, further studies have revealed that BPA may also be responsible for a wide range of other medical problems- from obesity to autism, ADHD, low IQ, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Worse yet, though BPA has been found to have negative effects on people of all ages, its effects are far worse on the most vulnerable segment of the population: infants, young children, and pregnant women. That is why in 2012, the FDA followed the lead of a handful of US states and banned BPA from use in children’s cups and baby bottles. And while this effort is a step in the right direction, given the widespread exposure to BPA via so many of the foods we eat and drink, this effort has proven to simply not be enough.
Now, another recent study conducted by the National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Paris, France, has revealed that in addition to the known issues linked to BPA exposure, BPA may also be responsible for defects found in children’s tooth enamel, too. Tooth enamel is the visible, protective coating on our teeth that prevents tooth decay- and what we see when we look at the teeth with the naked eye. It is described as the hardest substance in the human body, however, according to the findings of the INSERM study, when exposed to BPA, the teeth’s enamel was not just damaged- but the actual structure of the genes responsible for making the enamel was damaged, too. This damage appears in the teeth in the form of milky white spots, which are actually weakened spots in the enamel itself. "Thankfully, we can treat these weak spots in the tooth enamel very easily," says Simpson- "but there is no magic fix for the cell damage itself. The BPA is basically rewriting the cell’s instructions for growing the tooth enamel- and that’s the major problem here." Worse yet, according to the INSERM study, this problem is worse than you might think. The study estimates that a full 15-20% of children aged 6-9 years old are already experiencing enamel defects thanks to BPA exposure- and that number jumps to 40% in some areas of the world.
So, what about those efforts by the FDA to reduce children’s exposure to BPA? As it turns out, those efforts may need to be expanded, too. A recent article published in Science Daily claims that children may still be exposed to BPA in other baby products that aren’t included in the FDA ban. The study, conducted by the American Chemical Society recently revealed that of the 59 most popular teething rings on the market, 100% of them contain at least trace amounts of BPA- including many teething rings which claim to be BPA free! So what’s a parent to do? Dr. Simpson recommends choosing your products wisely. "Look for silicone teething rings, or aluminum or glass baby bottles or sippy cups if at all possible," she says. "Some plastic products truly are BPA free, but many of those products contain bisphenol F or bisphenol S, which could contain other chemicals that have not yet been adequately studied." As for teething products, Dr. Simpson suggests looking for rubber or silicone-based teethers, or look for a wood and cloth teether at your local natural food store. If all else fails, says Simpson "Try the old standby- a frozen cotton or organic cotton washcloth."