A Heart-Changing Moment

Author:  Atul Karki
Institution:  Institute of Medicine, Nepal
Date:  March 2010

Nearly everyone uses plastic every day. But did you know that this seemingly innocuous material might be hurting our hearts at the same time? Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a major component of plastics and is found in many objects such as PVC pipes, food cans, and drink containers. Detectable in the bodies of 90% of the American population, it is one of the most widely produced and used chemicals. Recent studies have shown that there is a link between high levels of BPA and heart disease.

University of Exeter researcher David Melzer, MB, PhD analyzed the data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2003- 2004, and suggests that higher BPA levels are linked to heart disease, diabetes and elevated liver enzymes. According to the study done by Dr. Melzer's team, a 60-year-old man in the top tier of BPA levels (over 3.5 ng/ml urinary concentration) has a 10.2 % chance of having heart disease, while those in the lower tier (with concentrations under 1.4ng/ml) have only a 7% risk of having heart disease. Further analysis of the CDC data from 2005-2006 supports those findings. "It is clear that the connection is still there," says Dr. Melzer.

The American Chemistry Council has, however, labeled the study as "very limited." It cites lack of causal relationship between BPA levels and heart disease as displaying insufficient grounds to incriminate BPA. But according to Linda Bimbaum, PhD, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, "There are critical periods of development when exposure to BPA may lead to certain health effects, including behavioral effects, diabetes, reproductive disorders, development of certain kinds of cancers, asthma, cardiovascular disease and effects that can go from one generation to the next." This means that despite the causal evidence, the harm caused by high levels of BPA is seen in the adults as well as children borne by them.

Thus, a longitudinal study, which includes following a group of people over a large number of years, would lead to clearer answers about the effects of BPA on the human body. Nonetheless, Dr. Melzer's findings might be the earliest evidence that there may be harm related to high levels of BPA. In light of these findings, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has recommended "reasonable measures" to decrease the levels of BPA in the human body. These include reducing use of canned foods, avoiding placing plastic containers in microwave ovens, using baby bottles that are BPA-free and, on a larger scale, substituting plastics with stainless steel or glass materials.

Time and time again, we have heard the pros and cons about plastic, generally more cons than pros. But the truth is that, despite repeated attempts to curb plastic use, plastic continues to be one of the most commonly used materials. Perhaps Dr. Melzer's study could sway the argument again back in favor of using less plastic. Paper bags and glass containers seem to be easy alternatives, or perhaps we will find a plastic that poses less harm than the current BPA-containing plastics: only time will tell.