Can plastics make us fat?
Hmm… That title doesn’t quite seem to capture the urgency of the issue, does it? Yet despite rampant skepticism, the data continue to pour in — chemicals in some of the most common plastics and household products, things that surround us every minute of the day, are major culprits in the obesity epidemic. At least now that fact is now getting some well-deserved attention. From Newsweek:
Evidence has been steadily accumulating that certain hormone-mimicking pollutants, ubiquitous in the food chain, have two previously unsuspected effects. They act on genes in the developing fetus and newborn to turn more precursor cells into fat cells, which stay with you for life. And they may alter metabolic rate, so that the body hoards calories rather than burning them, like a physiological Scrooge. “The evidence now emerging says that being overweight is not just the result of personal choices about what you eat, combined with inactivity,” says Retha Newbold of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in North Carolina, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Exposure to environmental chemicals during development may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.” They are not the cause of extra pounds in every person who is overweight—for older adults, who were less likely to be exposed to so many of the compounds before birth, the standard explanations of genetics and lifestyle probably suffice—but environmental chemicals may well account for a good part of the current epidemic, especially in those under 50. And at the individual level, exposure to the compounds during a critical period of development may explain one of the most frustrating aspects of weight gain: you eat no more than your slim friends, and exercise no less, yet are still unable to shed pounds.
Note that this phenomenon really hits kids hardest (as does the obesity epidemic), both because of fetal and childhood exposure, and also because of the fact that these products have only become truly ubiquitous since the eighties. Note also the line above about “personal responsibility.” Evidence now suggests that the same number of calories will make a person who has been exposed to these chemicals fat, while others remain trim. Suddenly, the “Calories In/Calories Out” mantra of Big Food — the idea that it’s up to you to manage your own caloric intake and outgo (i.e. exercise) — starts to ring hollow. If you need proof that the “personal responsibility” argument is moot, you need only look to all the fat babies. Or as Newsweek puts it:
…[T]hese [other] causes cannot explain the ballooning of one particular segment of the population, a segment that doesn’t go to movies, can’t chew, and was never that much into exercise: babies. In 2006 scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health reported that the prevalence of obesity in infants under 6 months had risen 73 percent since 1980. “This epidemic of obese 6-month-olds,” as endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, calls it, poses a problem for conventional explanations of the fattening of America. “Since they’re eating only formula or breast milk, and never exactly got a lot of exercise, the obvious explanations for obesity don’t work for babies,” he points out. “You have to look beyond the obvious.”
And what’s beyond the obvious? Plastics. Children’s Health Magazine recently did a story on “Your Big Fat House” that uncovered just how common these — as one scientist has dubbed them — “obesogens” are in your home:
BEDROOM Carpet (PBDEs), vinyl flooring (PVC), mattress (PBDEs), toys, (BPA), waterproof clothing (Phthalates, PFOA)
FOYER Raincoats (phthalates), rain boots (phthalates), faux leather coats, shoes, purses, and briefcases (phthalates)
LAUNDRY ROOM PVC pipes, detergents, and dryer sheets (phthalates)
LIVING ROOM Carpet (PBDEs), air fresheners (phthalates), furniture (PBDEs), electronics (PBDEs)
BATHROOM Toothbrush (BPA), toothpaste, vinyl shower curtain, water from the shower comes through PVC pipes, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, creams, powders, and makeup (Phthalates), nail polish (Phthalates, PFOA)
KITCHEN Produce in the fridge (pesticides), meat in the freezer (PBDEs, PCBs, pesticides), canned food in the pantry (BPA), jars of peanut butter (phthalates), jars of tomato sauce (phthalates), jarred baby food (BPA), plastic cups, baby bottles, plates, and utensils (BPA)
Now you can probably find a way to eliminate some of these, especially in the bathroom and the kitchen. But are people going to rip up their vinyl floors and throw out ALL their children’s toys (not to mention those precious consumer electronics). And for many products how are you even supposed to find out if they contain these chemicals? In theory, you have to seek out products that declare their “status.” But really. Are we seriously expected to junk the entire contents of our houses? The advice that comes with the article tries to make this into one of those issues that can be solved by a good spring cleaning. Clearly, we’re way beyond that.
In June, the NYT’s Nick Kristof had an article about this class of chemicals and the danger they pose to ourselves and the environment. And he lamented the EPA’s “glacial pace” in addressing them — truly glacial if you realize that, though the connection to obesity is new, scientists have been aware of the existence of endocrine disrupting chemicals for decades. But the reason is obvious, isn’t it? These chemicals are in EVERYTHING. Truly everything. The “disruption” to manufacturers at every level is mind-numbing. We’re not talking about phasing out Freon here. This is about reformulating some of the fundamental ingredients to just about every major consumer item. Plus, to go ahead and ban them would not only force our friends in industrial chemicals and the oil industry (most of these products come from oil, remember) to find safe alternatives, which in some cases might be impossible. But all these suppliers (and the consumer products companies that incorporated these poisons into their offerings) would also be open to massive liability lawsuits. But the Newsweek piece concludes with the suggestion that even the EPA understands that the issue can’t be ignored for much longer:
This fall, scientists from NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and academia will discuss obesogens at the largest-ever government-sponsored meeting on the topic.
For this to lead to real change, of course, it will take more than articles in Newsweek and expert panels (and immunity from lawsuits which all these companies will inevitably be granted). What we need is outrage and consumer revolt. Anyone know where to find that?
Get Grist in your inbox