BPA-Free Replacement Plastics Linked To Childhood Obesity

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Worries over bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical commonly found in plastics, have led to a surge in BPA-free products. But now, a new study suggests that the chemicals replacing BPA may also be cause for concern.

In 2008, consumers began to ditch the popular Nalgene water bottle over concerns about bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that could leach from it and cause changes to the body’s hormonal system. The public health concerns were so striking that Nalgene reformulated the plastics in its flagship product. An entire industry of packaged food and food container producers followed suit by replacing the chemical with substitute compounds called BPF and BPS. 

Bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF) are manufactured chemicals used in certain kinds of plastic, in the lining of aluminum-canned food and drinks, and in thermal paper from cash-register receipts. These chemicals have been used as a replacement for bisphenol A (BPA), a well-known endocrine-disrupting chemical that harms human health by interfering with the body’s hormones. BPA exposure has also been tied to early puberty, miscarriage, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The new study, published on July 25th in the Journal of the Endocrine Society, adds to a growing body of evidence linking bisphenol chemicals with obesity and weight gain. In 2012, the same group of researchers found a link between BPA and childhood obesity.

“This research is significant because exposure to these chemicals is very common in the United States. BPS and BPF use is growing because manufacturers are replacing BPA with these chemicals, so that is contributing to the frequency of exposure,” said the study’s corresponding author, Melanie Jacobson, Ph.D., M.P.H, of NYU School of Medicine in New York, N.Y. “Although diet and exercise are still understood to the main drivers of obesity, this research suggests that common chemical exposures may also play a role, specifically among children.”

But, she pointed out, the replacement chemicals are structurally similar to BPA – as implied by names like bisphenol S and bisphenol F, two of the most common BPA substitutes.

And there is lab evidence that BPA alternatives have estrogen-like activity. A 2017 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that certain substitutes were actually more potent than BPA in activating estrogen receptors in human cells.

In a 2015 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a systematic review of the available literature came to the following conclusion: “Based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and they have endocrine-disrupting effects.”

Johanna Rochester, Ph.D., who conducted that study as a researcher at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, told Time in 2015 that the results were already clear-cut back then.

“According to pretty much all the literature there is on these two substitutes, they are hormonally active in ways similar to BPA — similar mechanisms, similar potencies,” she said.

BPF and BPS are both quickly metabolized by the human body, which means that they aren’t detectable in urine samples — like those used in the latest study — for very long.

“This is problematic when assessing these chemicals in relation to obesity, which occurs incrementally over time and has a multi-factorial etiology,” Jacobson and her team write.

The new study adds to the evidence that “BPA replacements are likely to be causing similar kinds of concerns as BPA itself,” said Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, who wasn’t involved in the study. “From a consumer standpoint, the label of ‘BPA free’ really should not necessarily equate with meaning that it’s safe or healthier.”

Consumers who want to avoid bisphenol chemicals besides BPA “are in a very difficult position,” Spaeth said. There is no way for consumers to really know whether a product contains these chemicals, he said.

“I think consumers don’t have good options in terms of how to … make informed choices,” Spaeth told Live Science. For this to change, there would need to be changes to the way these chemicals are regulated and how products are labeled, he said.

The new findings are based on data from a government health study conducted between 2013 and 2016. It included 1,831 children and teens aged 6 to 19.

Overall, 97% of participants had detectable levels of BPA in their urine samples; 88% had detectable levels of BPS; and 55% had detectable levels of BPF, the authors found.

But if you’re looking to avoid bisphenols, Samara Geller, of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, offered this advice: Eat fewer processed foods and more fresh ones; choose frozen or dried foods over canned, or foods sold in glass or other alternatives to cans and plastic; avoid hard, clear plastics with the recycling code 7 or marked “PC”; ask for electronic receipts; wash your hands after handling paper receipts.

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