There's an old trope that, if men were able to get pregnant, we'd have long since embraced wide-ranging, comprehensive maternity leave policies in the U.S., science would have developed a fail-save birth control method, and so on.
News published by Kaiser Permanente today may lead to an equivalent scenario for bisphenol A. The chemical that's been in the spotlight off and on for the last three years is getting another black mark on its record: BPA exposure can lead to significant problems with male sexual performance.
From the announcement of Kaiser's research:
Increasing urine BPA level is associated with decreased sexual desire, more difficulty having an erection, lower ejaculation strength and lower level of overall satisfaction with sex life, researchers said. The five-year study examined 427 workers in factories in China, comparing workers in BPA manufacturing facilities with a control group of workers in factories where no BPA was present.
BPA is an ingredient in manufacturing polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins and is now contained in a wide variety of consumer products from baby bottles, plastic containers, and the resin lining of cans for food and beverages, to dental sealants. People can be exposed to BPA by using BPA-containing products.
In a previous related study, Kaiser Permanente researchers measured BPA exposure based on work history and environmental BPA exposure in the workplace. This new study measured urine BPA among participants and examined the correlation between their urine BPA level and their reported problems of sexual dysfunction.
"This is the first human study to show that high urine BPA is associated with lower male sexual function," said study lead author De-Kun Li, MD, PhD, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research in Oakland, Calif. "Also, even among men exposed to BPA from only environmental sources (no occupational exposure and with average BPA level lower than the average observed in the American population), there were indications of an increased risk of sexual dysfunction." He explained that although the estimates in the environmentally exposed group were not statistically significant due to small sample size, this finding may enhance the understanding of the BPA effect in human populations with low-dose environmental exposure and have important public health implications.
The new study is the latest nail in the coffin for BPA, a chemical that's been on the Most Wanted list since at least 2008, when it was first removed from baby bottles, sport bottles, and other products that might affect childrens' development.
BPA is also used to as a liner in tinned food cans, and a study published earlier this month found that BPA contamination in canned foods is five times higher than previously thought, and that levels can vary widely across brands and even within a brand's different canned foods.
Last month, GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther asked if corporate America had reached a tipping point on BPA, citing among other actions the recent move by General Mills to pull BPA from its cans of organic canned tomatoes.
And of course, back in March the EPA placed BPA on a list of "chemicals of concern," another step toward a broader ban on the product.
But the challenge in replacing BPA will be twofold: In addition to the political and bureaucratic hurdles that will have to be overcome, there's the always thorny question of finding safer substitutes for toxic chemicals.
Because U.S. chemical policy is scattershot at best, meaning that chemicals are tested, removed and banned on a case-by-case basis, and requirements for testing are far from comprehensive, there's always the chance that whatever replacement that comes to bottles and cans near you could be worse than what they're replacing.