A woman living in Cincinnati, Ohio, has broken a record of sorts: She has the highest-ever documented levels of a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA) in her body, researchers announced on Wednesday (May 11).
Doctors think the woman accrued these high levels simply through her diet, which is high in canned foods and foods reheated in a microwave in plastic containers. (High temperatures increase the chance BPA is leached out of the container and into food.)
The findings are concerning "because it means that going through your daily life in the general population, any one of us could be exposed to these levels," said study researcher Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, of Seattle Children's Research Institute.
The woman was pregnant in 2004 at the time the levels were reported. Her child experienced neurological problems at 1 month of age, though, now 5, her child shows no neurological or behavioral problems, according to the case report published online April 27 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The woman was enrolled in a study of about 400 participants. The levels of BPA in her urine at week 27 were 300 times higher than the average levels of those in the study and on par with the average concentration of BPA found in people working with BPA in factories, Sathyanarayana said.
While the researchers hope the report will alert the public of the possibility of being exposed to high amounts of BPA in everyday life, others caution that taking any lessons from a single person can be dangerous.
"One person can have a unique situation," said Dr. De-Kun Li, a researcher at Kaiser Foundation Research Institute in Oakland, Calif., who was not involved in the study. In any population study, a person with extremely high BPA levels would be known as an outlier, and an outlier "does not represent anything," Li said.
Another concern involves the fact that the concentration of BPA in an individual can vary widely, even in the course of a day, Sathyanarayana said. The Cincinnati woman was found to have high BPA levels at week 27 of her pregnancy, but researchers don't know how long this exposure lasted. In fact, her BPA levels were lower at other times and perhaps if averaged over the entire pregnancy, the levels may be normal or even lower than those found in other participants, Li said. (The scientists didn't average their results.)
At week 22 of the woman's pregnancy, she reported drinking five canned beverages per week and eating canned foods. Five years later, when researchers conducted a follow-up interview, the woman said she had eaten canned ravioli everyday during week 26 of her pregnancy and heating plastic food containers in the microwave.
While many animals studies have suggested BPA can cause health problems, its effect on people remains unclear. The chemical is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can interfere with the production and action of hormones. A study published last month linked prenatal BPA exposure to low birth weights in infants . A study last year found that exposure to even low levels of BPA can reduce sperm quality in men.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in 2008 that products containing BPA are safe, but the organization has since expressed concerns about BPA and is conducting studies to discern any harmful effects of the chemical.
People in the general population, especially pregnant women, should try to avoid exposure to BPA, Sathyanarayana said. Some tips for reducing BPA exposure include: avoiding drinking or eating out of plastics with the recycling number 7, which may contain BPA; limit the amount of canned foods you eat; rinse canned foods and vegetables before eating them and avoid using plastic containers in the microwave.
Pass it on: The highest levels of BPA ever to be found in a person in the general population were reported by researchers. However, because this study involved just one person, it's not clear what the results mean for the population as a whole.
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