BPA, as we have mentioned many times before, is a potentially toxic endocrine-disrupting chemical compound that’s virtually impossible to avoid in modern life. It’s found in soup can linings, plastic-packaged foods, medical devices, and dental sealants, among other places. Even if you vigilantly avoid all things plastic and canned, you’re not in the clear—BPA is also found in store receipts. And yet, there is at least one community of pregnant women that have shown significantly lower levels of BPA and phthalates (a toxic group of industrial chemicals used to make PVC) in their urine than those of other pregnant women in the U.S. Meet the Old Order Mennonites (OOM).
The OOM community, a Christian sect has been in the U.S. since the 1600s that actively avoids the materialistic lifestyle so many other people enjoy. They rely on local and homegrown food, and don’t employ technologies that they believe will harm their community. Is it any surprise, then, that they don’t have to deal with much of the toxicity that comes from our technologies and processed food?
Researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Mount Sinai School of Medicine selected a group of 10 OOM pregnant women from a Western New York community and collected a single sample of urine from each. The women were also quizzed on their habits 48 hours before the urine collection, including stress, water sources, daily transportation, personal hygiene products, cosmetics, household cleaners, and more.
The women’s urine wasn’t completely clean. Seven out of 10 had detectable amounts of BPA, and all the samples had detectable levels of pthalate metabolites. But in nearly every instance, the Mennonite urine contained fewer traces of these chemicals. The median BPA concentration in the Mennonite samples, for example, was 0.71 ng/mL (the highest was 1.7 ng/mL). The median for pregnant U.S. women tested by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is 2.8 ng/mL. If those numbers made your eyes gloss, just know that modern pregnant woman have four times more BPA in their urine.
What’s the OOM secret? The study participants travel mostly by horse and buggy, walking, and bike; avoid cosmetics; and don’t use many personal products like shampoo and deodorant. But they do, in fact, use household products containing fragrances, as well as plastic storage containers. Tellingly, the three study participants who had been in a car or truck in the 48-hour testing window had higher levels of phthalate metabolites in their urine than the others, suggesting that the chemicals can be found in cabin air. The one participant who used hairspray in the 48-hour period also had higher levels of phthalate metabolites.
Even though the OOMs use plastic products to store food, they still dodge the BPA and phthalate bullet by eating mostly homegrown produce (and a little processed food, because they aren’t perfect). The report explains, "because both BPA and especially phthalates are fat-soluble, they tend to concentrate in materials such as butter, milk, and cheese. The OOM community provides much of these foods from their own farms so that outside environmental sources of contamination are minimized."
More research needs to be done; 10 women isn’t exactly a huge sample size. But the report, published this week in NeuroToxicology does emphasize that it is possible to at least partially avoid cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting chemicals by making lifestyle changes. We aren’t yet completely powerless, in other words.