A Little BPA May Be Worse Than a Lot

pregnant woman's belly

Baby mice exposed in the womb to low doses – but not high doses – of bisphenol A (BPA) were fatter and had metabolic changes linked to obesity and diabetes, according to a new study published today.

While BPA has been removed, voluntarily or by regulation, from many products aimed at young children, including baby bottles, the chemical remains in wide use. Found in polycarbonate plastics, canned food liners and some thermal receipts, BPA is found in almost everyone’s body. Some earlier studies have linked it to obesity and diabetes in people, and exposure has been linked to a range of health issues in laboratory settings..

Building on previous studies that link the hormone-altering chemical–it was first developed as a synthetic estrogen–to changes in body weight and glucose tolerance, the new research fuels an ongoing controversy over whether federal testing of chemicals is adequate to protect people from low doses.

“What’s scary is that we found effects at levels that the government not only says is safe, but that they don’t bother to test,” said Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri, Columbia, professor and senior author of the study published in the journal Reproductive Toxicology.

Many of the effects were reported in the mice fed daily doses – just during pregnancy – that were one-tenth of the amount that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is safe for daily exposure throughout life.

Vom Saal said low doses of BPA caused a “deranged metabolism” in the offspring of the exposed pregnant mice, suggesting that “a component of the obesity epidemic and other metabolic diseases can be due to chemical exposure during development, when your cells are being programmed.”

In the offspring mice, BPA was associated with weight gain, increased abdominal fat and eating, impaired glucose tolerance and increased hormones that regulate glucose and appetite. Those outcomes, however, only happened when mothers were fed daily doses at or below 5,000 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight. That amount is the EPA’s “no effects” level – the daily amount that the agency has concluded would not cause any human effects.

Of the doses fed to the pregnant mice – 5, 50, 500, 5,000 and 50,000 micrograms per kilogram – 500 caused the most metabolic changes, vom Saal said. The number of fat cells doubled at the 500 dose. No effects were seen at doses higher than 5,000.

The study adds to the controversy over a phenomenon called “nonmonotonic dose response,” which means that hormone-like chemicals such as BPA sometimes do not act in a typical way; they can have health effects at low doses but no effects or different effects at high doses.

The EPA frequently evaluates the safety of chemicals with tests that expose lab animals to high doses, then extrapolating to lower doses that people encounter.

In a report last year, 12 scientists, including vom Saal, criticized that decades old-strategy, saying it fails to detect health threats from low doses of hormone-like chemicals. Pete Myers, founder of Environmental Health News and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, was the senior author of that report.

Last month, reacting to that report, the EPA defended its testing, concluding that current testing of hormone-altering chemicals is adequate for detecting low-dose effects that may jeopardize health. In response to vom Saal’s new study, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, said the findings had not been replicated and it “presents conclusions that are not supported by the findings of EPA’s recent extensive review of the state of the science on low dose exposures.” The EPA did not respond to requests for comment on vom Saal’s study.

Scientists are increasingly looking at environmental chemicals as a potential contributor to the growing obesity and diabetes problem.

BPA mimics estrogen, which has different effects on different systems and organs in the body, said Thomas Zoeller, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, professor. Exposure to such chemicals during development can alter metabolism by changing how the body regulates insulin and glucose, he said.
Zoeller said vom Saal’s study adds to the concern about how ubiquitous chemicals are tested. “We’ve created a system where the entire human population is being exposed to chemicals that haven’t been evaluated for safety at relevant levels,” he said.

This is an edited version of an article by Brian Bienkowski and published by Environmental Health News.

A Little BPA May Be Worse Than a Lot
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