If your New Year's resolution is to diet, you should also add "de-plasticize"

Jack Pratt

Jack is EDF's Senior Political Director.
Published January 2, 2014 in Health \ Chemicals

It’s a new year and time for the inevitable resolutions about losing weight.  While diet and exercise are featured on every January magazine cover, there’s one factor that gets little ink: the growing evidence connecting exposures to certain common chemicals to obesity.

A number of studies have linked exposures to the chemical bisphenol A (better known as BPA) to obesity in children and teens. One 2012 study, for instance, found that children most highly exposed to BPA had a rate of obesity twice that of their peers, and that’s after the researchers controlled for other factors including income, television habits and diet.

So how could a chemical affect our waistline? As an “endocrine disruptor,” BPA has the potential to interfere with our own hormonal systems; that may impact our bodies’ normal energy balance and fat metabolism, which can lead to obesity.

While BPA has been banned in baby bottles and other specific uses in certain states, it is in such widespread use that it can be found in 9 out of 10 Americans.  BPA is commonly found in certain plastic containers, the linings of food and beverage cans, thermal receipt paper, and dental sealants. Concerns about its health impacts have yet to significantly alter the market for BPA. In fact, around six pounds of BPA are still produced for every American each year.

Other common chemicals join BPA on the list of those identified as potential “obesogens”: phthalates (found in some plastics and fragrances), PBDEs (common “flame retardants”), and certain pesticides have also been linked to obesity. And research indicates that exposures of a developing fetus in the womb can trigger a proclivity to being obese later in life. 

Unfortunately, this research suggests that not all contributors to obesity lend themselves to being managed through diet and exercise tips, and it’s a bigger problem than fitting into that new pair of jeans you got for Christmas. 

Obesity-related illnesses are second only to tobacco in causing premature deaths every year, and are linked to a broad range of secondary health impacts like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, experts estimate the related costs to our economy run into the hundreds of billions annually.

As the impact of obesity on our nation’s health and economy become clear, governments at every level are scrambling to address the epidemic. From banning sugary drinks to hula-hooping at the White House, our elected officials have taken notice of the problem. They have yet to fully consider the contribution of chemical exposures however. 

One place to start is to reform our badly outmoded toxics law, which allows chemicals to enter and remain on the market without any assurance of safety. There are tens of thousands of chemicals in use today, and for the vast majority we have remarkably little understanding of their health impacts. This year, Congress should update the Toxic Substances Control Act to require that the safety of all chemicals in use be assessed and that those found to pose risks be appropriately regulated. That would be a resolution worth keeping.