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Common chemical in plastic linked to male sexual problems

The manufacturers of bisphenol-A (BPA), the controversial compound found in literally thousands of consumer products (including many food containers), took a big PR blow last week with the publication of a new study linking BPA with male sexual dysfunction.

The study, funded by the U.S. government and published in the journal Human Reproduction, is the first to investigate the impact of BPA on the human reproductive system. Previous studies had uncovered disturbing adverse health effects on laboratory animals, including damage to the brain and nervous system and cellular changes associated with breast and testicular cancer.

For the current study, researchers followed 634 male factory workers in China over five years. The men who were exposed to high workplace levels of BPA reported significantly more sexual dysfunction than their peers who worked in factories where BPA wasn’t present.

Specifically, the BPA-exposed workers were four times more likely to experience erectile dysfunction and reduced sexual desire and seven times more likely to have difficulty with ejaculation.

And the sexual problems developed within only months of taking a job with high BPA exposure.

True, the levels of BPA exposure experienced by the Chinese workers were 50 times those faced by the average American man. Yet this study raises the troubling question of whether lesser levels of the chemical could also affect sexual function.

An interesting perspective

Blogging for U.S. News and World Report, physician-journalist Ford Vox, MD, brings up an important point about the just-published study: The factory workers in this study inhaled the BPA particles at their workplace. In the U.S., BPA typically enters the body through the digestive system. Could that make a difference? Writes Vox:

We’re more akin to the men who were used as controls in the study: the men who live in the same city but who don’t work in the BPA factories. They were still exposed, of course, but in the same way we are here, by BPA in plastics infiltrating the food we eat. The urine BPA concentrations in [the] control groups are also similar to those seen in Americans. Their reported sexual dysfunction is similar to that seen in surveyed American men.

The study’s authors, Vox reports, are already diving into the data to see if different levels of BPA in the control population correlate with different levels of sexual complaints. “That study will mean much more to American men,” says Vox.

Vox also points out that BPA may be among men’s “least likely excuses for sexual misfires.” He writes:

Simply being between 40 and 70 years old gives you a fifty-fifty chance of having a minor malfunction the next time you’re with your partner. [Erectile dysfunction] is so common that stress (or even a pessimistic attitude) generates odds similar to those … reported in the BPA-bathed factory workers. Combine psychology and relationship variables with the better understood “organic” mechanisms (diabetes, heart disease, drinking, smoking, drug side effects), and avoiding BPA would have to rank pretty low on your personal to-do health list. After you’ve controlled your cholesterol, blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood sugar, etc., by all means attempt to limit your BPA exposure.

Reducing your exposure

Limiting exposure to BPA is not easy, however. In its December issue, Consumer Reports published a study that found BPA leaching into the food of almost all the metal food cans it tested — including those labeled “BPA-free” or “organic.”

The highest levels of BPA were found in canned green beans and canned soup.

“A 165-pound adult eating one serving of canned green beans from our sample, which averaged 123.5 ppb, could ingest about 0.2 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, about 80 times higher than our experts’ recommended daily upper limit,” notes Consumer Reports. “And children eating multiple servings per day of canned foods with BPA levels comparable to the ones we found in some tested products could get a dose of BPA approaching levels that have caused adverse effects in several animal studies.”

Consumer Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, has called for Congress and food manufacturers to eliminate BPA from all materials that come in contact with food. (The Food and Drug Administration is currently reassessing the safety of the chemical.)  In the meantime, it recommends that you take the following three easy steps to reduce your exposure to BPA:

  • Choose fresh food whenever possible.
  • Consider alternatives to canned food, beverages, juices and infant formula.
  • Use glass containers when heating food in microwave ovens.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by William Wallace on 11/30/2009 - 09:38 am.

    Mildly interesting correlation, and possibly a case of “disease mongering”. Lots of plausible explanations exist, e.g., you might see similar correlations for men who work at garlic factories, or in an industry that is just stressful.

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