Gender-bending chemicals found in tin cans
Date Posted: 24.02.2013
Leading brands of tinned food contain a 'gender-bending' chemical linked to cancer and damaged sexual development, the UK Government's food watchdog has found.
Scientists at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) identified the substance, which mimics the female hormone oestrogen, in more than half of the cans of food on sale in supermarkets.
They detected bisphenol A, which has also been linked to early puberty in girls, in everyday products ranging from baked beans to fish. The substance is used to make the plastic coatings on the inside of many tins. Although the levels were within safety limits, there is growing concern about damage the chemical might cause to health in lower concentrations.
The FSA findings - which come from the first widespread analysis of tinned products on sale in the UK - are bound to fuel fears about the possible effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Experts have suggested that they could be responsible for falling sperm counts in Western men, increases in testicular and prostate cancers and damage to the reproductive system. Bisphenol A was detected in 37 out of a total 62 products tested by the FSA. The highest levels were found in tins of Princes tinned ham on sale in Tesco. These contained as much as 0.42 mg of the chemical for each kilogram.
It was also picked up at lower levels in Sainsbury's fruit cocktail in syrup, Heinz baked beans, Farrow's giant marrowfat processed peas and Tesco baby carrots.
Last night Friends of the Earth, which has been campaigning for a ban on the use of the chemical for several years, described the findings as 'very disturbing'.
Dr Michael Warhurst, the organisation's safer chemicals campaigner, said: 'People will be very surprised by the extent of the contamination with this chemical.
'Quite a number of scientists have found that it can have effects at very low levels. 'We have got real concerns because the rates of prostate cancer and other problems are going up and we don't really know why. 'The Government must put pressure on the canning industry and supermarkets to get rid of this risky chemical. The Government should stop protecting its friends in the chemical industry and start protecting our health.' 'In the meantime, the public has a right to know which cans contain this hormone disrupter.'
Concern over bisphenol A was triggered five years ago when scientists at the University of Missouri found that when very low concentrations were given to pregnant mice, their male young had a permanently enlarged prostate gland and a 20 per cent lower sperm count when they matured. The levels were about 25,000 times lower than the limit thought to be safe for human consumption. Since then, a scientific debate has raged over whether the chemical and other hormone-disrupting substances are safe. There is still no consensus about the risks, particularly for pregnant women and babies.
The FSA report on the presence of bisphenol A in food on sale in the UK has been passed to the Department of Health's Committee on toxicity of chemicals.
In a statement, the committee said that it considered that the current levels of exposure to people eating tinned foods were 'unlikely to be of concern to health'.
It was 'not appropriate' to base health risk assessments on the existing reports of damage to human health at very low levels of exposure.
Richard Billinge, of the FSA, said the levels of the chemical which had been identified in canned goods were within safety limits.
But he said the 'uncertainties in scientific understanding' of lower levels had been noted.
The FSA has launched a consultation exercise with the industry to determine whether there are viable alternatives to bisphenol A and whether any more can be done to stop it leaching into canned food.
Moira McMillan, chief executive of the British Coatings Federation, which represents companies making the linings of food cans, admitted the industry was 'at a loss' to explain the high levels found in the tinned ham. But she insisted that the consumers were safe when exposed to such low levels of the chemical 'Nobody should change their eating habits,' she added. 'We are talking about very low levels. 'Observations of low dose effects have not been reproduced by other laboratories. 'We continue to read the scientific reports and to take note of them.'