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Aluminum cans, BPA and food safety

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When I was trying to research a 2007 piece about the safety of different types of water bottles, finding reliable research on bisphenol A was tough. Flash forward to this year, when the FDA banned the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups but declined to do the same with food and beverage containers, including aluminum cans.

BPA has been used in plastic and aluminum-can lining since the 1960s, to prevent contamination, preserve food and beverages, and prolong shelf life. In recent years, the use of BPA has become controversial amid concern that the chemical leaches into food, accumulates in the human body and, with properties that mimic estrogen, causes abnormalities in fetuses, babies and young children. The issue came to a head four years ago when the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York environmental advocacy group, petitioned the FDA to ban BPA use in food and beverage packaging.

The FDA began in-depth studies into possible toxic effects of BPA exposure and found that pregnant and nursing women don’t appear to pass a significant amount of the chemical to their babies and that people metabolize and eliminate BPA at a much higher rate than previously estimated, according to an update in March. Based on those findings, the agency declined to ban BPA from food and beverage containers but offered consumers tips for avoiding the chemical if they’re still concerned.

Manufacturers worldwide are expected to produce about $8 billion worth of BPA this year, with the majority expected to be used in plastic items including bottles and a relatively small portion going into epoxy resin that lines the inside of beverage cans, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The ruling on baby bottles and other drink containers meant for children came in response to a request from the American Chemistry Council, but it was largely moot — manufacturers already voluntarily stopped using BPA in bottles and sippy cups, as The New York Times and other media outlets reported.

Meanwhile, can companies and beverage-makers are moving forward with their own policies, using the FDA’s findings and vowing to keep a close eye on the agency’s further research as they decide whether to phase out use of the chemical. This year, Campbell Soup announced a plan to phase out BPA, after some of its most family-friendly canned products were found to have a high level of the chemical, Forbes reported.

Coca-Cola took a more measured approach, putting out a lengthy explanation and citing FDA research to illustrate its belief that its soda cans are safe. While the company is always looking for better alternatives for its cans, it has no plans to phase out or ban BPA.

The debate isn’t likely to disappear with the FDA’s most recent findings, but at least there’s research to help companies and consumers understand the issue and make their own decisions.