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The growing use of plastic food containers in developing countries means their citizens are now exposed to as much bisphenol A (BPA) as those in rich countries, a research review has found.
The paper, published in Food and Chemical Toxicology earlier this month compiles data from 16 studies. It found that, for example, BPA levels detected in the urine of people in rural Ghana were comparable to those obtained in urban Jamaica and the United States.
BPA is used to make certain plastics or resins. It can seep into food or drinks from food containers or the protective linings of cans, the authors explain.
“Creating legislation to control toxic chemicals in the food chain may not appear to be a pressing issue now, but it is for future generations.”
Alison Linnecar, International Baby Food Action Network
“Our observations clearly indicate that there is a growing middle class in developing countries that is increasingly adopting Western lifestyles”, including eating canned and packaged foods, the authors write. This includes working middle-class women, who are more likely to bottle-feed their babies than poor or stay-at-home mums, potentially exposing their babies to BPA, they say.
Studies in animals have linked BPA exposure to reproductive and immune problems, among other health effects, although there is “general agreement” that the actual threat to human health is low, the paper says.
Lead author Sylvia Baluka, a food safety researcher at Makerere University in Uganda, says: “In my country, BPA-free bottles are sold in supermarkets and pharmacies and are more expensive”, so mothers often buy cheaper bottles that contain BPA.
BPA exposure remains poorly studied in developing countries, she says. “Infectious diseases get most of the focus” at the expense of other health issues, Baluka tells SciDev.Net.
Creating legislation to control toxic chemicals in the food chain may “not appear to be a pressing issue now, but it is for future generations”, agrees Alison Linnecar, who heads a working group on the contamination of infant feeding products at the International Baby Food Action Network, which promotes breastfeeding.
To avoid exposing babies to BPA, governments should “encourage women to breastfeed” through skilled advice and maternity leave policies, Linnecar suggests.
Last year, a European Union agency the European Food Safety Authority recommended lowering the safe level of BPA exposure in the diet from 50 to four micrograms for every kilogram of body weight per day. At the same time, however, it concluded that the chemical poses no health risk to consumers at current exposure levels.Brazil, Colombia, South Korea and South Africa also have regulations in place that restrict BPA use, the paper points out.
Developing countries need to do more research on BPA presence, for example measuring levels of the chemical in urine and water samples, Baluka suggests. “We need to conduct our own studies to have a stronger basis to come up with our policies,” she says.