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A few years ago, Jodi Flaws, a bioscientist at the University of Illinois, began testing a theory about the risks to women posed by the widely used industrial compound bisphenol A, or BPA.
A series of studies had suggested that it could damage developing ovaries. But nobody knew how. So for a month, Dr Flaws dosed young female mice with a BPA solution at a level comparable to estimated human exposure in the US. She then examined their ovaries, focusing on the follicles.
Compared with normal mice, the follicles of the treated mice were fewer and smaller. Further analysis showed that estradiol, the sex hormone essential for normal reproductive development, was not being produced at normal levels. BPA, it seemed, interferes with enzymes essential in the production of such hormones. Another study published by her laboratory found that treated mice stopped producing viable eggs at an abnormally young age.
Scientists have discovered similar effects across an increasingly broad range of mammals, from sheep to monkeys to, alas, humans. The accumulating research fuels rising concern among scientists that childhood exposure to BPA may well contribute to female infertility. “I think most scientists working today agree that BPA is an ovarian toxicant,” Dr Flaws said. A review of research into BPA, published this summer in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, noted that ovarian toxicity is among the most consistent and strongest effects found “in both animal models and in women.”
Discovered in the late 19th century, BPA came into wide commercial use in the mid-20th century. It is an ingredient in products like polycarbonate plastics, thermal coatings on cash register receipts and protective linings in cans and pipes.
Concerns about its health risks didn’t really arise until the late 1990s, when researchers first reported that it appeared to disrupt normal hormone function. Consumer worry led the Food and Drug Administration to ban it in baby products, such as bottles, and manufacturers voluntarily scaled back its use in other goods. But because good substitutes are hard to find, BPA is still used in many materials, and studies have found that a majority of Americans still test positive for exposure.
What that means for our health has turned out to be a complicated subject; manufacturers have pointed out that more than decade of research has produced often inconsistent results. Still many experts worry that the evidence that this chemical damages young ovaries is consistent - and growing.
“There are so many