What's that leaching from your cans?

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Q I just heard that hormone disruptors are leaching from canned foods. Do I have to ditch everything that comes in a can?

A The bad news about everyday chemicals keeps on comin,’ doesn’t it? The hormone disruptor you’re talking about is bisphenol A (BPA), and troubling facts have been trickling out about this bad news bear for a few years now. First, there was talk about BPA leaching from Nalgene-type polycarbonate water bottles and baby bottles. Then we found out that it’s in those white cavity sealants dentists use. Then came the cans.

While environmentalists have known about the use of this chemical in food and drink can linings for a while, recently the kick-ass Washington-based Environmental Working Group actually tested products on store shelves for the presence of BPA. The results? Well, let’s just say they weren’t good for anyone whose diet relies on tinning technology. Over half the 97 cans of soup, soda, veggies and fruit tested registered positive for the stuff. One in 10 showed disturbingly high levels, the worst being canned veggies and pasta (not good for those kids growing up on canned ravioli and peas).

The numbers were even worse for canned infant formulas, one in three of which had upsetting BPA levels. This is especially unnerving considering that over 100 peer-reviewed studies have concluded that the compound does indeed do damage at low levels.

What kind of damage? Take a seat and stay a while. Early exposure (like, say, in the womb) has been tied to birth defects, attention disorders, miscarriages, infertility you name it. Most recently, scientists at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meet said that exposure to estrogenic chemicals like BPA in the womb might even lead to obesity later in life. Same goes for breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Still, Canada has yet to set limits on how much bisphenol A is too much. The good news is that it’s one of the 200 chemicals of concern that the feds have fingered for their first round of reviews on potentially toxic chemicals. Back in December, Health Minister Tony Clement made a big deal of singling out soft drink makers, saying they’d have to start proving that their cans don’t leach BPA. (Do you think he already knew that colas have some of the lowest BPA levels, according to EWG’s tests, and thus their makers wouldn’t have to worry about reformulating their cans? Nah, must be a coincidence.)

As of this spring, Health Canada is finally beginning its bio-monitoring of chemicals in 5,000 Canadians, and will test their blood for bisphenol A, among other things. If we’re anything like Americans, they’ll find it in 95 per cent of us.

Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the dark, depressing stuff and start with the solutions. What should you do? If you eat canned foods once in a while, especially, say, lower-risk ones like canned peaches or soda, I wouldn’t worry too much. If you eat canned food every day, including canned vegetables, pastas and soups, you might want to reconsider your shopping habits.

Obviously, cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients is your safest bet. So is buying dried beans and soaking them. (I know, I know, this will be tough for last-minute cooks.) If you’re a student and absolutely depend on instant soups, for instance, look for the kinds that come in glass mason jars.

As for baby formula, if you can’t breast-feed, try powdered formula. (EWG only tested the liquid kind, and the dry ones shouldn’t be as bad.) Parents might also want to look into the Environment California Research and Policy Center’s frightening new report on the bisphenol A leaching from clear polycarbonate baby bottles. The group found that all five brands tested (Avent, Evenflo, Gerber, Playtex and Dr. Brown’s) leached “at levels found to cause harm in numerous laboratory animal studies.”

Nervous? I’d switch to glass (Evenflo makes some you can special order) or safer opaque plastics. FYI, San Fran recently banned bisphenol A from kids’ products (including baby bottles and toys for kids under three years). Tell your MP you want Canada to do the same.


Adria Vasil’s new book,Ecoholic:Your Guide To The Most Environmentally Friendly Information,Products And Services In Canada,will be available in April.

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