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Laboratory Mistake Sends Scientist Down New Path

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The chemical structure of BPA.

Bisphenol-A, a chemical in plastics, thermal-paper receipts and the lining of tin cans, has been fingered as the culprit for a bunch of health problems.


In our bodies, BPA acts like a hormone -- and in animals, at least, it seems to disrupt all sorts of important functions.


A lot of what we know about BPA comes from the work of Patricia Hunt, a professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences at Washington State University. And she did not start out looking for toxic chemicals; she started out looking at eggs.


That is, human eggs.


Hunt was studying why eggs deteriorate as women get older. She was working with mice, and things were going great, until suddenly, they weren't.


“We were getting some very cool data, I was saying ‘yeah we’re on the right track!’ And all of a sudden, the bottom fell out for us,” says Hunt.


That meant her mice -- the normal, control group -- suddenly had a bunch of defective eggs. After some sleuthing, they turned up a culprit: plastic. Specifically, the mice’s plastic cages and water bottles.


It seemed that they had been washed in the wrong detergent, causing them to break down and leech what turned out to be BPA into the mice’s environments.


That scientific curveball set Hunt an a whole new course in her career. And it also led to much public concern over BPA -- a substance the chemical companies insist has not been proven to be dangerous. But Hunt says she’s seen enough evidence from her lab and others to justify sounding the alarm.


And her story also carries with it a lesson about learning from our mistakes: “A very famous granddaddy of genetics [that would be William Bateson] said, ‘treasure your exceptions.’ And that’s how I was raised,” she says.


Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.