Your Health: Chemical in Plastic Poses Special Risk for Women

A chemical found in plastic household products may pose a significant risk to women with polycystic ovary syndrome, the most common cause of hormone imbalance in women of reproductive age and a leading cause of infertility in the U.S.

The chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA), is a known hormone disrupter present in a variety of polycarbonate plastic items used daily by most Americans. Familiar sources of BPA include water bottles, milk cartons, food storage containers and the plastic coatings inside food cans.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is characterized by the presence of enlarged ovaries containing numerous cysts. Affected women typically have abnormally high levels of testosterone and other androgens, hormones that promote the development of excessive facial and body hair, acne and male pattern baldness.

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome often experience significant menstrual irregularities and weight gain. In addition to infertility, the condition is linked to an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

milkIn a recent study, researchers at the University of Athens Medical School in Greece found that blood levels of BPA were higher in women with polycystic ovary syndrome compared to those without the disorder. As BPA blood levels increased in affected women, so did the concentrations of male sex hormones.

Blood levels of BPA were nearly 60 percent higher in lean women with polycystic ovary syndrome compared to lean women without the condition. Among obese women, those with polycystic ovary syndrome had BPA levels that were more than 30 percent higher.

Based on their findings, the scientists concluded that high levels of androgens, typical in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, reduce the ability of the liver to break down and detoxify BPA. When the plastic-derived chemical isn’t properly cleared from the bloodstream, it begins to accumulate in the body.

While women with polycystic ovary syndrome often have trouble becoming pregnant due to infrequent or absent ovulation, high levels of BPA may make it difficult for them to carry their pregnancies to term. Previous studies have shown that BPA is significantly elevated in women who have suffered recurrent miscarriages.

During pregnancy, BPA may continue to cause problems. The National Toxicology Program reported that the current level of exposure to BPA is a cause for concern regarding its effects on developing organs in unborn babies.

Because BPA appears to alter the development of the reproductive tract in unborn females, some experts fear that the chemical may negatively impact the future fertility of individuals who were exposed to it even before birth.

Additionally, Yale researchers determined that low doses of BPA can impair brain function, potentially contributing to learning disabilities in children. Scientists at the University of Cincinnati reported that BPA can exert negative effects on brain tissue, even when present in minute quantities.

In response to growing public concern and controversy surrounding the safety of BPA, the U.S. Food and Drug Agency is re-evaluating the health risks posed by the chemical. It’s likely that manufacturers of plastic products will face new regulations regarding BPA in the near future.

Until then, it’s up to consumers to try to limit their exposure. According to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 93 percent of people in the U.S. have detectable BPA levels in their urine.

This widespread exposure is particularly concerning for women with polycystic ovary syndrome.

To date, there are no scientific studies to prove that reducing BPA blood levels will improve fertility or pregnancy outcomes in women with the condition. Still, it seems reasonable to expect that these individuals might benefit by limiting their use of chemical-containing plastics.

Scientists have known for years that the chemical structure of BPA is rather unstable, especially in the presence of heat. This chemical instability allows BPA to leach into foods and beverages that come into contact with plastic containers.

To reduce your exposure to BPA, it’s a good idea to avoid leaving plastic water bottles in the car or outside in the summer heat, since high temperatures can increase the release of the chemical. It’s also wise to use glass or porcelain dishes for microwaving foods and liquids.

For women with polycystic ovary syndrome, limiting BPA exposure may be helpful, but it’s only a small part of a comprehensive treatment program that often includes lifestyle changes, regular medical checkups and prescription medications. Early diagnosis and aggressive medical treatment can help women with polycystic ovary syndrome enjoy healthier, longer lives.

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