One mistake changed her career


Patricia Hunt speaks to an audience of students and faculty as part of the Common Reading lecture series in CUE 203 Tuesday, Sept. 3.

The researcher who made BPA a household word is none other than a professor at WSU’s School of Molecular Biosciences.

Patricia Hunt is an Edward Meyer distinguished professor, and in 2007, Scientific American named her as one of the top 50 researchers in the country. She is best known for discovering the link between bisphenol A – a compound found in most plastic bottles and genetic abnormalities in lab mice.

As the speaker for last night’s Common Reading event, “Science by Accident: How a Small Mistake Changed the Course of My Career,” Hunt explained how a simple accident led to her discovery and changed the course of her career.

“We had a new temporary worker, and we explained to him that these are the two detergents,” she said. “One has BPA and the other doesn’t, but we didn’t note any difference other than the pH.”

Hunt said the worker used the wrong detergent to clean polycarbonate cages and water bottles, which “leeched out” BPA contained in the plastic and exposed the lab mice.

“It took us months to realize that this was the cage problem,” said Hunt. “The temporary worker had washed the cages just a few too many times – and changed our lives forever.”

She said BPA is an endocrine disruptor, a chemical that interferes with the balance of hormones in our bodies.

“The chemicals that are of most concern…are chemicals that, when entered into our bodies, either mimic or control our hormones,” BPA, as Hunt explained, is one of those chemicals. “This is a chemical that acts like estrogen.”

Hunt said “low dose” BPA exposure to fetuses or newborns is likely to cause serious health problems. Among those problems she noted reduced fertility, increased risk of cancer, metabolic and behavioral changes, miscarriages, and physical birth defects.

Hunt noted that five states, including Washington, have banned the sale of baby bottles and sippy cups that contain BPA. She said everyone in the U.S., including the government, knows BPA is “bad stuff.”

“We’re putting this stuff into the hands of the most vulnerable segment of our population – our babies and our newborns,” she said.

Hunt cited conflicting claims about the effects of BPA as reason for delayed legislation on the matter.

“We don’t really know how much exposure to BPA we get on a daily basis,” said Hunt. “I don’t think removing it from baby bottles and sippy cups is enough.”

Hunt advised her audience not to pay additional costs for products labeled “BPA-free.” She said those products contain another compound, bisphenol F, the effects of which are similar to those of BPA.

“I’m going to close with the words of the doctor whose words I like the most – Dr. Suess,” said Hunt. “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

The next Common Reading event will feature Sandra Postel, a National Geographic explorer and freshwater conservationist, in a lecture titled “Water is the New Oil.” It will take place in the CUB Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Sept. 19.