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Chemicals in plastics may harm unborn babies

By Roger Highfield, Telegraph

31 July 2007: Pregnant women who consume a chemical found in everyday plastic products such as food containers and water bottles could be putting their unborn children at risk of developing cancer and other diseases when they reach adulthood.

Exposure within the womb to bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in the production of plastics, caused changes linked with diseases such as obesity, cancer and diabetes, according to studies by a team from Duke University Medical Centre, North Carolina.

The results of the study in the lab of Dr Randy Jirtle, funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in a paper which calls for the risks of the chemicals to be reassessed.

The Duke team studied the response of a strain of rodents known as agouti mice.

Normally, these mice tend to be slender and brown but when the mouse mothers received BPA, the team noted a statistically significant increase in the number of their offspring born with a yellow coat - just over half, compared with 35 per cent of controls.

Previous studies have shown that yellow agouti mice are at a much greater risk for diabetes, obesity and cancer.

"The fact that the mice fed BPA had a yellow coat and likely would grow to be obese as adults demonstrates that this single substance had a system-wide effect," said Dr Dana Dolinoy, one of the team.

Importantly, the team found that when pregnant mothers were also given folic acid, the influence of BPA was counteracted.

BPA is a synthetic version of oestrogen, the female sex hormone, and experts have suggested for more than a decade that chemicals in the environment and in consumer products may be contributing to male and female diseases, such as prostate and breast cancer.

While laboratory studies have uncovered possible health concerns in animals, there has been considerable debate in the United States and Europe about what levels are considered safe for human consumption. Around 95 per cent of adults test positive for BPA.

Dr Jirtle said that it is difficult at this point to determine what the levels of maternal BPA in humans would equal those that caused the changes seen in the mice.