Babies who are exposed to a controversial chemical found in receipts may be more at risk of breathing difficulties in later life, research suggests.
Scientists at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health analysed urine samples from more than 2,600 expectant mothers.
They found women who had ‘high levels’ of bisphenol A (BPA) in their waste were 13 per cent more likely to have a child who wheezed. These youngsters were also more at risk of poor lung function, the results showed.
The researchers warned that lower lung function in early life makes children more vulnerable to killer lung diseases, such as COPD, in later life.
BPA – also found in cosmetics and plastic bottles – is thought to disrupt hormones and alter ‘many body functions’, including the lungs.
Babies in the womb may be particularly vulnerable due to them being less able to remove ‘toxic substances’ and their respiratory system still developing.
However, an expert has called the data ‘limited’, adding it is unclear whether it is statistically significant or ‘simply due to chance’.
BPA, which belongs to a class of chemicals called phenols, is used in the manufacturing of food containers, cans and toys to name a few.
‘Phenols are chemicals we are continuously exposed to in our daily lives and BPA is the most commonly used phenol,’ lead author Alicia Abellan said.
‘Phenols are known to be ‘endocrine disruptors’, which means they can interfere with the hormone system and consequently alter many essential body functions, including the respiratory and immune systems.
‘When babies are still in the womb, they are especially vulnerable to these substances because they have not yet established the ability to remove toxic substances, and their respiratory and immune systems are still developing.’
To assess the consequences of BPA exposure during pregnancy, the scientists looked at 2,685 pregnant women who collectively took part in eight European research projects.
Of the participants, 79 per cent had detectable levels of BPA in their urine.
Less common phenols like bisphenol S and bisphenol F were also present but to a lesser extent.
Results showed the women who had higher levels of BPA in their urine were more likely to have children who wheezed.
These youngsters, who were aged between six and 10, also had a 5ml (0.16 fl oz) decrease in their lung capacity.
Vital capacity measures the maximum amount of air a person can expel from their lungs after breathing in as much as possible.
It is normally 60ml/kg (2 fl oz/2.2lb) for an adult. A 70kg (154lb) person would therefore be expected to have a vital capacity of around 4L (0.87 gallons).
Different studies have thrown up varying results of what a child’s ‘optimal’ reading should be.
Full results will be presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress in Madrid.
The scientists claim their study is strengthened by its large number of participants.
However, they tested just one or two urine samples per woman.
The findings may therefore give just a ‘snapshot of recent exposure’.
‘Our research doesn’t tell us exactly how the two are linked, but previous research in animals has shown prenatal exposure to BPA can stunt the developing lungs and have an impact on the immune system,’ Ms Abellan said.
‘It could be these chemicals interact with hormone signals in the growing baby and alter the correct development of the immune and the respiratory systems.
‘There is no general consensus regarding a safe level of exposure to phenols, but recently the EU general court classified BPA among the list of ‘very high concern’ chemicals.’
Professor Daiana Stolz, chair of the European Respiratory Society Education Council, added: This research suggests exposure to BPA in the womb may lead to small but measurable differences in children’s lung function.
‘These effects might not have much impact on children who are otherwise healthy, but they are very important when we consider the health of a whole population.
‘Policy makers and clinicians should be aware of the role these commonly used chemicals might play in the very earliest stages of a baby’s development and the impact that could have on our population’s health at later stages of life.
‘We know having lower lung function in early life makes people more prone to developing chronic lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
‘Further investigation is needed to confirm the link between phenol exposure and respiratory effects, as well as more research to assess the mixtures of chemicals in our environment and their effects on respiratory health.’
The scientists plan to investigate the effects of prenatal BPA exposure across childhood, as well as that of other phenols at lower concentrations.
Dr Rod Mitchell, consultant paediatric endocrinologist at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, said: ‘The potential impacts of in-utero environmental exposures and future health are an important subject for scientific research.
‘[However] from the limited information presented in the abstract it is not possible to fully determine the validity of the experimental approach or the findings.
‘In particular, this conference abstract does not demonstrate whether the reported association is statistically significant or could simply be due to chance.
‘As a result, [a] robust peer-review of the entire study is required before any conclusions can be made.’
BPA reacts with oestrogen and thyroid-hormone receptors, and has been linked to infertility, autism, ADHD, obesity, type 2 diabetes, premature births and early onset of puberty
Exposure to BPA, which is also found in the lining of canned foods, also causes the same inflammation and gut bacteria changes in mice that occur in Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis patients.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned BPA from baby bottles, while The European Commission prohibits the chemical from being added to receipts from 2020.
COPD is an umbrella term for a collection of conditions causing lung damage, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema – in which the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs are damaged.
The disorder is incurable and affects 900,000 people in the UK, usually above the age of 35, and an estimated 30,000 people die from it each year.