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Chemical in many canned foods poses risk, and California consumers are left in dark

Given their convenience, many parents see canned foods as healthy alternatives to junk food for their children. More than half of American families say they eat canned foods, and the global canned food market is expected to grow. Americans are also facing a growing epidemic of diabetes and obesity, and although it may seem odd to connect these trends, doctors and scientists are now warning that there could be a hidden culprit in canned foods that can contribute to these common health threats.

Recent studies show that exposure to bisphenol A, known as BPA, a chemical found in many canned foods, may be linked with an increased risk of diabetes and obesity. BPA exposure can disrupt the body’s natural hormones, including ones that regulate how we process and store fats. Hormone altering substances such as BPA – also called endocrine disrupting chemicals – can threaten our health at extremely small doses. These chemicals also may be more dangerous during certain developmental stages, so BPA from canned food could be even more harmful to pregnant women, children and teens.

In California, state scientists in 2015 unanimously agreed that BPA should be added to the state’s list of chemicals known to cause birth defects. Normally this listing would require companies to warn consumers when canned foods pose a risk of BPA exposure. But after food industry lobbying, the state exempted canned foods from the warning law until the end of 2017. In place of the warning, the state developed a database of cans that contain BPA.

But a new report shows that BPA is still widely used in canned food, and also warns that the state’s database does not provide consumers with reliable information on BPA in cans.

Between January and April, the Center for Environmental Health purchased and tested more than 250 food cans from nine states for BPA, finding nearly 40 percent are still made with BPA. Most alarmingly, the testing shows that nearly 20 percent of the cans from California stores that tested positive for BPA are either not included in or are inadequately identified by the state’s database of BPA-containing cans, demonstrating that the database is inadequate to protect consumers who want to avoid BPA.

This is especially troubling to parents who live in “food deserts,” where canned food from the local store is often the most convenient and affordable option for fruit and vegetables. Low-income communities of color suffer from disproportionate rates of diabetes and obesity, and studies correlate this disparity with a lack of access to fresh foods.

A recent study of selected cities found that only 8 percent of African Americans lived in areas with one or more supermarkets, compared with 31 percent of white residents. Studies also show that people in low-income communities of color have, on average, higher levels of BPA in their bodies than the rest of the population.

Other major retailers have recently taken steps to eliminate toxic chemicals from their products. Just last month, national drugstore chain CVS announced it would eliminate harmful chemicals from its store-brand cosmetics. In January, Target adopted a policy calling for ingredient disclosure of all products they sell, ultimately aiming to eliminate harmful chemicals from the stores’ shelves.

If these major stores can pledge to eliminate dozens of dangerous chemicals from hundreds of cosmetics, cleaning products and other household goods, we should expect convenience stores and other retailers to take action to protect their customers from one dangerous chemical found in our food.

Alvaro Palacios Casanova is an Environmental Scientist with the Center for Environmental Health. He can be contacted at alvaro@ceh.org.

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