Study shows many US canned goods still contain cancer-linked BPA

‘If you go to a store and buy a can, it is likely to have BPA,’ the study’s director says. Science linking BPA to harmful effects has been published for years

Canned beans
Less than one-third of the 252 brands surveyed by EWG use BPA-free cans for all products. Photograph: Martin Lee/Rex Features

The world’s largest food companies and brands continue to coat their metal food cans with bisphenol A-based epoxy (BPA) – a chemical known to have links to breast cancer, reproductive problems, heart disease and other illnesses – a study has found.

The study, published on Wednesday, is the first of its kind to conduct in depth research into food companies and their products for consumers.

With no other significant data available on specific manufacturers, brands and companies, Environmental Working Group (EWG) took it upon themselves to develop the largest database of companies and products and their use of BPA.

“If you go to a store and buy a can, it is likely to have BPA,” said EWG Research Director Renee Sharp, adding that there was “not a lot of information on alternatives” available to consumers, which prompted the EWG’s interest in developing data.

The report argued “the US canning industry is at a critical turning point”. Numerous countries, including Canada, the European Union, China and even the US have banned BPA use in baby bottles and baby food packaging.

Less than one-third of the 252 brands surveyed by EWG use BPA-free cans for all products. Of those companies questioned, 43% gave “ambiguous or incomplete” answers to EWG queries. Some companies did not respond entirely.

The survey said that without any clear national BPA standard, companies have been able to label their products “BPA-free” even when researchers found some products still contained small amounts of the chemical in can linings.

The science linking BPA, a synthetic estrogen, to harmful health effects has been published for years. A University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign study published earlier this year revealed that mice exposed to BPA saw an increase in fertility and reproductive problems – even exposure to levels below the Food and Drug Administration’s standard increased health issues.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BPA was found in 93% of urine samples it tested, meaning Americans are regularly exposed to it.

According to the EWG, BPA copies thyroid and sex hormones in both animals and humans. It has been revealed to alter the brain and nervous system development as well as change reproductive systems, even at low exposures.

Despite this, the FDA has been slow to act, and in 2014 reduced its warning on BPA, calling its use “ safe at the current levels occurring in foods.” Citing “scientific evidence,” the FDA seemingly changed its position despite scientists’ warnings. This went counter to a January 2010 statement from the FDA announcing that it had “some concern about the potential effects of BPA in the brain, behavior, and prostate glands in fetuses, infants and young children.”

BPA remains in most canned foods on the shelves of any supermarket. The EWG reports that the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, the trade organization representing the metal food-packaging sector, puts the number of BPA canned foods at roughly three-quarters of the market.

“We want consumers to be vocal about BPA,” said Sharp. “When there was an outcry over water bottles and baby food, the change was nearly overnight.” Companies almost immediately altered production after widespread public outcry concerning BPA in 2012. Ironically, the FDA banned BPA use in baby bottles for the same health concerns the EWG report cites.

But the canned food sector has been slower to change, and with limited information, Sharp said most people simply may not know it exists at these levels.