Just How Harmful Are Bisphenol A Plastics?

Patricia Hunt, who helped to bring the issue to light a decade ago, is still trying to sort it all out

Dan Lamont

On the day Patricia Hunt’s career veered into an entirely different field, her graduate students at Case Western Reserve University were grumbling, itching to use some exciting new data in their own experiments, but were told to wait while Hunt (just one last time) checked on her subjects.

Hunt, a geneticist, was exploring why human reproduction is so rife with complications. She had a hunch the chromosomally abnormal eggs that plague human pregnancies were tied to our hormones. A paper outlining the results of Hunt’s experiments on the hormone levels of female mice was ready for publication. All she needed was to ensure that her control population, the mice left alone in the study, was normal. Instead Hunt stumbled on a disturbing result—40 percent had egg defects.

Hunt shelved hopes of publication and scrutinized every method and piece of lab equipment used in her experiment. Four months later she finally fingered a suspect.

It was the janitor. In the laboratory. With the floor cleaner.

A single breach in protocol had turned the rodents’ safe environs into acutely toxic habitats. A maintenance worker had used an abrasive floor cleaner, instead of the usual mild detergent, to wash out cages and water bottles. The acidic solution scarred the hard, polycarbonate surface of the plastic and enabled a single chemical culprit to leach out—bisphenol A (BPA).

Hunt’s unnerving discovery, in 1998, led her to speak out on the possible human health threats of BPA; she and Frederick vom Saal, a biologist at the University of Missouri–Columbia, have become prominent scientists sounding the alarm. To critics, however, Hunt and vom Saal have been alarmists; they argue that there have been no documented cases of BPA-based plastic harming humans and that fears of the chemical are overblown.

First synthesized in 1891, bisphenol A came into use as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. Later, chemists discovered that, combined with phosgene (used during World War I as a toxic gas) and other compounds, BPA yielded the clear, polycarbonate plastic of shatter-resistant headlights, eyeglass lenses, DVDs and baby bottles.

But during the manufacturing process, not all BPA gets locked into chemical bonds, explains Tim A. Osswald, an expert in polymer engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. That residual BPA can work itself free, especially when the plastic is heated, whether it’s a Nalgene bottle in the dishwasher, a food container in the microwave, or a test tube being sterilized in an autoclave.

In recent years dozens of scientists around the globe have linked BPA to myriad health effects in rodents: mammary and prostate cancer, genital defects in males, early onset of puberty in females, obesity and even behavior problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

For her part, the 54-year-old Hunt, now at Washington State University, focuses on aneuploidy, or an abnormal number of chromosomes in eggs that causes birth defects and miscarriages. Last year she co-authored a paper in PLoS Genetics that, she says, makes her original discovery look like “child’s play.” Hunt exposed  pregnant mice to BPA just as the ovaries in their developing female fetuses were producing a lifetime supply of eggs. When the exposed fetuses became adults, 40 percent of their eggs were corrupted, which spelled trouble for their offspring. BPA’s effects, it seemed, were not confined to the mouse receiving the dose. “With that one exposure,” Hunt says, “we’re actually affecting three generations simultaneously.”

Although experts debate whether mice make good models for human effects, the crux of the argument over BPA is that experimental results have not been reproduced. A 2004 report from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found “no consistent affirmative evidence for low-dose BPA effects.” According to I. Glenn Sipes of the University of Arizona, a co-author of that paper, it is this inconsistency that bothers skeptics. “I’ve never had a problem saying that we can see biological effects in these low-dose studies,” he says. “But why are we seeing these studies that can’t be repeated?” A onetime result in a rodent model, Sipes argues, cannot be extrapolated to mean negative impacts for human health.

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This article was originally published with the title "Safety Dance over Plastic."

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