Those of us who are serious about reducing toxins in our personal environment have probably already switched from plastic containers to glass or stainless. We are filtering our water at home and avoiding the plastic water bottles as much as we can. But what about our coffee?
A few years ago, I fell in love with the now very popular Keurig brand coffee maker. Variety being the spice of life, it was wonderful to have a different flavor with virtually every cup. No more boring Folgers coffee (sorry, Folgers). And no more stale overheated and somewhat condensed coffee three hours into the morning, most of which ends up down the drain. A lovely fresh cup of java every single time. My relationship with my Keurig coffee maker is a bit of a love/hate thing. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes all I get is a pathetic dribble that produces maybe a half cup of coffee. But that's a different conversation. I will probably never own any other brewer. I'm hooked.
But what about those little "k-cups"? How healthy are they, really?
The k-cups themselves may or may not contain BPA. The plastic material is rated a "7" because it is a mix of plastics. According to the Mayo Clinic, "plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA." But "may be" doesn't necessarily mean "are." Keurig says they do not contain BPA, so feel free to take them at their word. In my house, we've started using the Ekobrew stainless refillable k-cups because it's cheaper. But when I use the Keurig cups, I've started cutting off the bottom so the hot water doesn't touch any plastic...at least from the k-cup.
On the other hand, the brewer itself is, of course, made of plastic, and the reservoir that holds the hot water does contain BPA, according to Keurig. And one thing we also know is that with plastics containing BPA, it is very important to avoid heat, as this causes the chemicals to leach into your food...or in this case, water.
The next logical question is, how much BPA is too much? WebMD has this to say: "The FDA maintains that studies using standardized toxicity tests have shown BPA to be safe at the current low levels of human exposure." Of course the FDA doesn't attempt to define exactly what the "current low levels of human exposure" are. BPA is literally everywhere. In plastics, in the plastic linings of cans. It coats receipts, CDs and DVDs. It's in the plastic parts of your car, it's in sports equipment. It's in the sealant your dentist may be putting on your teeth. It's in the plastic containers of microwavable food, probably in the containers of the leftovers you take home from the restaurant and store in your refrigerator. You're touching it, you're drinking it, and you're eating it.
In an experiment by the Harvard School of Public Health, participants were divided into two groups. One group was fed a 12 ounce can of soup, the other was fed a homemade soup prepared from fresh ingredients. As noted in The Hidden Dangers Of BPA, "The results of the test were striking and showed that the group who ate the canned soup had over 1,221% higher levels of BPA in their urine. This was after consuming just 12 ounces of soup!" Is that considered by the FDA and our medical establishment to be a "low level?"
When the FDA makes its decisions about regulating potentially toxic substances such as BPA, it focuses on research done by government scientists like Justin Teeguarden, whose research looked at how much BPA actually makes it into the bloodstream in a dangerous form from foods eaten. Since the body filters toxins through the liver and intestines, his conclusion, as presented in an NPR article, How Much BPA Exposure Is Dangerous?, was that those filtering functions were sufficient to protect us from the toxic effects of BPA. The chemical was undetectable in the blood of any of the twenty subjects in his study. Bear in mind, the study was over one day, not many years. It's true that the liver filters our blood, but how much of a load can it handle before it becomes overwhelmed. I doubt this can be determined in a one-day study. And let's not forget, without compelling and irrefutable evidence of harm, the FDA usually rules in favor of industry, not consumers.
BPA is an endocrine disrupter (like soy). It's an estrogenic, which means it mimics estrogen and can alter hormone levels in both men and women. Studies have connected it to tumor development (breast, testicular, and prostate), endometriosis, and low sperm count as well as chronic conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It may be especially problematic in infants and growing children because their bodies are still forming and their immune system and toxic filtering systems are not fully developed.
We are told that although there may be correlation, there is no "direct evidence" that BPA is responsible for these ailments. This isn't exactly true. Many studies have been done on animals, there are just no studies that have been done on humans. We know that animal and human metabolism are never exactly the same. But it's not likely that a significant study of the effects of BPA on humans will ever be done. Eating one 12 ounce bowl of soup is one thing. Most people do that on a regular basis. But who wants to subject themselves to toxins over a long period of time? And yet, that's exactly (it turns out) what we're all doing, whether we realize it or not.
Here's another disturbing thought. What if ALL PLASTICS share the same problems that make BPA so harmful? From an article in MotherJones.com entitled, The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics:
"CertiChem [a lab in Texas] and its founder, George Bittner, who is also a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin, had recently coauthored a paper in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It reported that 'almost all' commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren't exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun's ultraviolet rays. According to Bittner's research, some BPA-free products actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA."Avoiding plastic completely may never be realistic, but even eliminating just the known BPA-containing plastic is an ongoing challenge. I drink water from a stainless steel water bottle. I cook, prepare, and store food in glass. But that's where it ends. How can we avoid the other myriad exposures to BPA? I could get rid of my Keurig and go back to brewing my coffee the old fashioned way. I could... but I won't, at least not yet.
There may well be BPA in my coffee. But I will trust my liver to do its job for now and hope for the best.
The Keurig will break down eventually, and I will have another opportunity to consider a wiser choice.
Image credit: geekologie.com