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Scientists link chemical used in plastics to health problems

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Chemical structure of bisphenol A.

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The Washington Post
Lyndsey Layton
September 17, 2008

The first large study in humans of a chemical widely used in everyday plastics has found that people with higher levels of bisphenol A had higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and liver abnormalities, a finding that immediately became the focus of the increasingly heated debate over the safety of the chemical.

The research, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association by a team of British and American scientists, compared the health status of 1,455 men and women with the levels of the chemical, known as BPA, in their urine.

The researchers divided the subjects into four statistical groupings according to their BPA levels and found that those in the quartile with the highest concentrations were nearly three times as likely to have cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest levels, and 2.4 times as likely to have diabetes. Higher BPA levels were also associated with abnormal concentrations of three liver enzymes.

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Although the researchers described them as preliminary, the findings were the buzz of a public hearing the Food and Drug Administration held Tuesday to discuss whether BPA is safe for continued use in food packaging and liquid containers.

"This is the nail in the coffin," Frederick vom Saal, a reproductive scientist at the University of Missouri at Columbia and one of the first to document evidence of health problems in rodents exposed to low doses of BPA, said outside the FDA meeting in Rockville, Md.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, cited the study as he opened an investigation of the way the FDA has regulated the chemical, joining several Democrats led, by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who have been looking into whether chemical manufacturers unduly influenced the agency's stance.

One of the authors of the new study, David Melzer of the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, England, briefed the FDA gathering about the research. He said that the study did not prove that BPA causes health problems and that additional studies are needed.

Data on the health status of the study subjects, ages 18 to 74, came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The BPA levels in the study were below those the government deemed safe.

The FDA regulates the compound's use in plastic food containers, bottles, tableware and the plastic linings of food cans. In light of the controversy surrounding the chemical, the agency is reviewing its policy and asked an outside scientific panel for a second opinion. "Right now, our tentative conclusion is that it's safe, so we're not recommending any change in habits," said Laura Tarantino, head of the FDA's office of food additive safety.

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