Is BPA Making Girls Obese?

Shutterstock

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


A chemical common in food packaging—Bisphenol-A (BPA)—has for years been scrutinized for potential links to reproductive problems, heart disease, cancer, and even anxiety. And now new research suggests BPA, which leeches out from things like aluminum cans, drink straws, plastic packaging, and even cashier’s receipts, could increase the risk for obesity in preteen girls.

A Kaiser Permanente study, published this week in PLOS ONE, examined obesity and BPA levels in a group of Chinese school children. While most of the kids were not significantly effected by the chemical, 9-12 year-old girls with high BPA levels in their urine were found to be twice as likely to be obese than other girls their age. In girls with especially high levels (more than 10 micrograms per liter) the risk of obesity was five times as great.

This isn’t the first study to reveal BPA’s particular effect on girls. My colleague Jaeah Lee explored how girls exposed to the chemical as fetuses were more likely to be anxious and depressed than boys, and another study on rhesus monkeys revealed how it messes with the reproductive system. So why are women more susceptible to the chemical?

The new Kaiser study suggests that, long after fetal development, girls in the throes of puberty may be particularly sensitive to BPA. Though his research didn’t focus on why exactly BPA might impact pubescent girls, Dr. De-Kun Li, the study’s principal investigator, offered some clues. BPA, considered an endocrine disrupter, mimics the hormone estrogen. Estrogen doesn’t just impact reproductive functions, says Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist. It also shapes the metabolic process: how the body absorbs, metabolizes, and stores energy. “Puberty is the process of accelerated growth, what we commonly call a growth spurt,” he explained. In puberty, girls’ bodies produce more estrogen, triggering all kinds of transformations that rely on heightened metabolism. Add higher levels of BPA, and the body’s delicate chemical balance could become disrupted. “For whatever reason—we still don’t have all this worked out—you screw up your normal process, resulting in over-storage or over-absorption [of fat], or it reduces metabolism.”

And there’s more evidence supporting the theory that girls could be especially vulnerable to BPA: A large international study of twins last year revealed that environmental factors have a greater impact on girls’ weight than on boys’, which is more swayed by genetics.

Li’s study adds to a growing body of research that sheds a darker light on this chemical, such as a 2012 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that also found links between high BPA levels and obesity in kids and adolescents. The FDA remains skeptical that low levels of BPA cause any harm, and the food industry continues to happily put it in all sorts of packaging, like the can linings of Coca-Cola products. In a move meant to assuage parental concerns as much as to address safety, the FDA banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012. The agency also claims to be “supporting efforts to replace BPA or minimize BPA levels in other food can linings.”

Li, who in the past has published studies on BPA’s association with low birth weight, decreased sperm count, and higher risk of sexual dysfunction, indicated that research on women may eventually prove the chemical’s risk to humans and its role in the obesity crisis. His next field of study? “In utero exposure, that’s the key. When you’re born, your development is already damaged. People are just starting to realize that that’s the problem.”

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate