Exposure to a chemical found in plastic containers is linked to heart disease, scientists said, in a study likely to add to pressure for the chemical’s use in bottles and food packing to be banned. British and US researchers studied the effects of the chemical bisphenol A using data from a US government national nutrition survey in 2006 and found that high levels of it in urine samples were associated with heart disease.

Bisphenol A, known as BPA, is widely used in plastics and has been a growing concern for scientists in countries such as Britain, Canada and the United States, where food and drug regulators are examining its safety.

David Melzer, professor of epidemiology and public health at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, southwest England, who led the study, said the research confirmed earlier findings of a link between BPA and heart problems.

BPA, which is also used to stiffen plastic bottles and line cans, belongs to a broad class of compounds called endocrine disruptors.

The US Endocrine Society called last June for better studies into BPA and presented research showing the chemical can affect the hearts of women and permanently damage the DNA of mice. "The risks associated with exposure to BPA may be small, but they are relevant to very large numbers of people. This information is important since it provides a great opportunity for intervention to reduce the risks," said Tamara Galloway of the Exeter University, who worked on the study published by the Public Library of Science online science journal PLoS One.

Experts estimate BPA, which is used in polycarbonate plastic products like refillable drinks containers, some plastic eating utensils and many other everyday products, is detectable in the bodies of more than 90 per cent of US and European populations. It is one of the world’s highest production volume chemicals, with more than 2.2 million tonnes produced annually.

"We now need to investigate what causes these health risk associations in more detail and to clarify whether they are caused by BPA itself or by some other factor linked to BPA exposure," Galloway said.

The charity Breast Cancer UK last month urged the British government to ban plastic baby bottles made with BPA because they said there was "compelling" evidence linking the chemical to breast cancer risk.