“If you’re going to buy drinks, buy them in glass bottles rather than plastic bottles, avoid canned food, and refuse thermal till receipts … simple things can help minimise our exposure to these artificial chemicals,” says Dr Michael Antoniou, discussing the daily challenge of avoiding bisphenols, many of which are known endocrine disruptors; that is they can alter the function of the body’s hormone system.

Michael is Head of Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London and explains that for people who have hormone-dependent breast cancer, exposure to the synthetic chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) will stimulate the growth of their cancer.

“Bisphenols pass through the skin very easily,” explains Michael, adding that studies suggest that even brief handling of thermal till receipts results in a spike of BPA in a person’s blood. “The chemical gets into foods and drinks because it is used in the manufacture of certain clear plastics and resins, can be a coating on thermal paper receipts, and is a component of the plastic that lines tin cans.

There’s evidence that BPA is an oestrogen mimic that can upset the body’s hormonal balance and result in ill health. In the context of breast cancer, this reaction is crucial because the growth of many breast cancers is dependent on oestrogen. In addition, endocrine disruptors such as bisphenols can exert their effects at very low doses and, therefore, even low levels of daily exposure can be harmful.

While public outreach from scientists is helping make people more aware of the possible dangers of BPA, the manufacturer’s response has been to replace BPA with other members of the bisphenol family, as Michael explains: “Regulators have behaved in a very shameful way in their response to the undisputed science. While public concern has led to labels on certain plastic containers stating they are BPA-free, there is still no listing of what chemicals are in the product. There are tens of different bisphenols, and if a product is marketed as being BPA- or BPS-free, it may contain other very similar artificial chemicals. Thus, in the public interest, it is far more important for manufacturers to disclose which bisphenols are present in their plastic products rather than which ones are absent.”

He adds that manufacturers continue to use bisphenols because the products are simply “very good at what they do. They’re light and strong – think of the pressure of fizzy water in a plastic bottle. But it’s unacceptable to put the convenience of the industry before people’s health. There are alternatives. And, of course, we should be moving away from all plastics as they’re incredibly damaging to the environment. But the plastics derived from bisphenols are some of the most dangerous to health that have been produced over the last 20 years.”

His growing concern found common ground with the Countess of Mar who was attending one of Michael’s talks in London. “She introduced me to Lynn Ladbrook (former CEO) of BCUK. I realised we shared common goals aimed at cancer prevention through scientific research, policy change, and education.” Michael is now a member of BCUK’s independent scientific review panel.

In 2018, a three-year research programme into the cancer-causing potential of bisphenols was enabled by a grant from BCUK. Michael and his colleague Dr Robin Mesnage are collaborating in the research with Dr Elisabete Silva who is based at Brunel University.

A previous 2017 study looked at the hormone-disrupting properties of bisphenols and herbicides. “We wanted to find out the truth about industry claims that the alternative bisphenols were safer, less oestrogenic, than BPA, “says Michael. “We tested in three different human breast cancer cell lines and found out that three (bisphenol AF, bisphenol B and bisphenol Z) of the six alternative bisphenols that can already be found in foodstuffs, were more potent oestrogenic compounds than BPA. Thus, claims that the BPA replacements are less oestrogenic and safer is not supported by ours and other’s findings.”

This type of ongoing research not only informs the general public about the health dangers posed by such artificial chemicals but can also lead to changes in the laws. For example, bisphenol research funded by BCUK in Michael’s laboratory, led to New York State proposing a ban on the use of BPA and the six alternatives studied in the manufacture of certain children’s products.

A further project awaiting the results of a grant application is to develop assay methods to measure bisphenols in human urine. “We don’t know what bisphenols are present in the UK population, because there haven’t been any surveys,” explains Michael. “Current regulation on the use of bisphenols is inadequate, and we need to change the views of the politicians and the regulators. But there’s no incentive for anyone to set up testing. So we hope to survey a cross-section of the public to identify what and how much bisphenols are present. And that would be a major, novel development. Once we know what’s there, then we can go and investigate their health consequences in further research.”

Michael adds that while bisphenols are relatively water-soluble, and can be cleared through urine quite quickly, the problem is the constant topping up: “We’re drinking and eating the same things every day and exposing ourselves to the same potential bisphenol contaminants. That constant exposure carries long-term health consequences, especially for somebody who has developed a hormone-dependent breast cancer.”

Minimising exposure to bisphenols can depend on the type of plastic: “Different types of plastic can potentially release different types of toxic compounds. If plastic wrap with BPA is put around a cucumber, for example, then some of the chemical may get into the vegetable. But vegetables and fruits can come in good old-fashioned cellophane, too, and that’s fine. No problem with that. If possible, buy food in loose packaging, or in glass jars, rather than plastic. And if you have to buy a drink in a plastic bottle, then never reuse the plastic bottle but put it in the recycle bin. You can dramatically decrease your daily exposure to bisphenols with these simple measures.”

Michael explains that BCUK’s unique preventive position regarding breast cancer resonates with him: “My lab’s work is all about trying to identify risk factors that people can avoid, and so prevent the disease from happening in the first place. That’s far more sensible than waiting until somebody falls ill before you try to do something about it. It’s a pleasure to work with BCUK.”

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BCUK. (n.d.).The link between bisphenols and breast cancer.

BCUK. (n.d.). Hormone disrupting properties of bisphenols & herbicides.

C&EN. (2017). Touching thermal-paper receipts could extend BPA retention in the body.

HQTS. (2018). New York State to expand BPA ban to substitution chemicals. [Online] Accessed 29 June 2021.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, (NIH). (n.d.). Endocrine Disruptors.

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