Pregnant women should make an extra effort to avoid bisphenol-A (BPA), commonly found in plastics and food cans, say researchers. A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to this chemical in the womb may lead to neurological changes in the developing fetus. Other research has linked BPA exposure in children and adults to an increased risk of obesity and cancer.

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BPA is used to harden plastics, including many of the food storage containers and possibly the water bottles in your kitchen. It’s also found in the lining of many canned foods, and on cashier receipts.

“BPA interferes with hormone signaling, especially estrogen signaling, so there is concern that BPA exposure during fetal development could alter the organizing effects of hormones on the brain, heart, mammary gland, reproductive tract, and other tissues,” says endocrine researcher Heather Patisaul, PhD, assistant professor of biology, Northern Carolina State University.

In a recent Canadian study, researchers exposed zebrafish to low doses of BPA. They sought to learn how BPA might effect a developing fetus’s nervous system development. The authors wrote, “Although human epidemiological results are still emerging, an association between high maternal urinary BPA during gestation and hyperactivity and other behavioral disturbances in the child has been suggested.”

What did they discover? “This paper revealed that BPA may accelerate neurodevelopment, an effect which then corresponds with hyperactivity later in life,” says Patisaul.

What’s more, the study found that bisphenol-S (BPS), which is often used as a substitute for BPA, had similar effects. “’BPA-free” does not mean chemical-free or endocrine disruptor-free,” says Patisaul. Products without BPA may have other hormonally active components.

Several states have banned BPA in baby and children’s products, and a number of manufacturers have since removed it from water bottles and food containers. “But it is impossible for the consumer to know what, if anything, BPA has been replaced with,” says Patisaul.

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Pregnancy precautions

Though more research is needed, scientists studying BPA believe pregnant women should take precautions to reduce their exposure to these plastics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of urine samples from people six years and older.

The good news: BPA breaks down and clears from the body very quickly. This means by reducing your exposure, you can quickly lower the amount your baby takes in. Here are seven ways to reduce your exposure to BPA and other endocrine disruptors.

  • Place that ultrasound photo in a frame. Ultrasound images are often printed out on thermal paper, which can contain BPA.
  • Try not to touch receipts (think food store, parking and lottery tickets, ATM printouts). Or simply wash your hands after touching them or before eating. “[BPA] exposure from receipts is likely very minimal,” says Patisaul.
  • Avoid canned food.
  • Do not heat food in plastic in the microwave.
  • Toss the plastic wrap.
  • Use glass or ceramic containers to store food or water whenever possible.
  • Avoid plastic with recycle codes 3 or 7, which may mean the plastic contains BPA, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist for the New York Times, national consumer magazines and websites.