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Caution for Cooks: Beware of BPA

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Dr. Frederick vom Saal is extremely concerned about three letters: BPA.

The University of Missouri-Columbia professor of biological sciences has been researching Bisphenol-A (BPA) for many years. This manmade chemical is found in multiple polycarbonate consumer goods: hard plastic baby bottles, food storage containers, water bottles, toys, pacifiers and teething aids, epoxy resins that coat the interior of food cans and dental sealants for children's teeth -- and it can cause significant harm, he and other experts warn.

BPA acts like estrogen, interfering with the body's natural processes. The chemical has been linked to male and female reproductive disorders, altered immune system function, behavioral changes, learning disabilities, brain damage and an increased risk for certain cancers. In infants, exposure to the chemical may cause irreversible damage, Dr. vom Saal cautions.

"The science is clear, and the findings are not just scary; they are horrific," he says. "When you feed a baby out of a clear, hard plastic bottle, it's like giving the baby a birth-control pill. If BPA was treated as a drug, it would have been pulled immediately. We are not saying get rid of plastics. This chemical can be replaced right now by safer materials, and the public would never notice the difference."

So, how do you protect your family's health and follow the tenets of organic living in a world where more than 6.4 billion lbs. of BPA are manufactured each year by 15 corporations? The answer lies with education.

Learn to Read Containers

The Society of the Plastics Industry developed labeling for plastic packaging so consumers and recyclers could understand more about the resins used in the manufacturing process. There are seven numerical codes, which can be found within the small recycling triangle that appears at the bottom of plastic containers. Here's what they mean:

  • 1 = Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  • 2 = High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • 3 = Vinyl (Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC)
  • 4 = Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • 5 = Polypropylene (PP)
  • 6 = Polystyrene (PS)
  • 7 = Other (commonly includes polycarbonate, nylon, acrylic or a composite of two or more resins)

According to Dr. vom Saal, if your plastic packaging displays numbers 1 through 6, it doesn't contain BPA. If it displays number 7, you may or may not have a product that contains BPA. His advice? Avoid buying containers or plastic goods that bear a 7.

Understand Plastic Basics

All plastics break down over time. When you heat plastic containers, chemicals may leach into your food, so replace them regularly. The more water a food contains, the greater the risk of chemical exposure. Toss any containers that have become discolored or cracked. Avoid storing acidic foods (citrus, tomatoes, etc.) in plastic containers, which accelerates breakdown.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Wash polycarbonate and plastic containers by hand, not in the dishwasher. Use warm water and a mild natural dish liquid. (I prefer Seventh Generation's Natural Dish liquid.) Rinse well.

When possible, opt for glass, porcelain and stainless steel containers, which won't leach chemicals. If you don't have the budget to replace your entire plastic-container collection, buy new containers, made from these other materials, one piece at a time.

If you can't survive your commute without a mug of hot organic tea or coffee, choose a stainless steel travel mug in lieu of a plastic one.

Microwave Oven Safety

You spend many hours cooking healthful, organic food for your family, so don't blow it by using plastic improperly. I don't recommend using microwaves to cook high quality organic foods but if you must, do it the safe way. Dr. Charles Breder, an expert on food packaging and former supervisory chemist at the Food and Drug Administration, offers these guidelines for microwave use:

  • Cook or reheat foods in containers intended for microwave use such as microwaveable, glass and ceramic cookware. These containers are designed to withstand high temperatures.
  • Remove food from store wrapping before thawing or reheating in a microwave oven (unless the manufacturer has indicated that it's meant for microwave use). Some containers will melt or warp when the food gets hot.
  • Don't use cold-food packages (restaurant carryout containers, butter tubs, cottage cheese containers, foam meat trays) in the microwave. They will melt in the microwave.

Finally, when reheating food, place microwave-safe plastic wrap over it, without letting it touch your meal.

"Some plastic wraps have labels indicating that there should be 1" or greater space between the plastic and the food during microwave heating," says Dr. Edward Machuga, a consumer safety officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Always read directions, he advises, adding that microwave-safe plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper and white microwave-safe paper towels are safe to use. Never use plastic storage bags, grocery bags, newspapers or aluminum foil in the microwave.

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