End Plastics

Is Plastic Making Us Obese?

Obesity is a sensitive subject that has dominated headlines in the last decade, and much attention has been given to the known contributing factors associated with it: diet, genetic disposition, exercise, and other health conditions. March 4 marks World Obesity Day, an international event to draw attention to the causes of and solutions to the issue. But a less understood factor that scientists are continuing to study is exposure to plastics and the chemicals within them.   

Any kind of judgment based on weight or body size is inappropriate, but education on the things we are exposed to every day, and how they affect our health, is crucial. People in the U.S. use around 0.75 pounds of plastic each day, making us the second-highest consumers of plastic in the world. This volume of plastic comes with a whole array of issues including one that relates directly to our health. 

We are inhaling and ingesting tiny microscopic fragments of plastics, known as microplastics, and a range of toxic plastic additive chemicals as the plastic packaging and products degrade over time. It is hard to imagine that these products could be harmful to us, but research into the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastic additives reveals that plastic can have startling health impacts.  

What are EDCs?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, are natural or man-made chemicals that can block or interfere with the body’s hormones and alter the functions of the endocrine and metabolic systems. Over 350,000 synthetic chemicals have been produced and used over the past 40 years, and industry creates hundreds more each year. The Endocrine Society estimates that at least 1,000 of these man-made chemicals may be EDCs. 

A recent study of over thirty common plastic objects found that over 98% of the 55,000 chemicals in these items were not even identifiable, meaning that scientists have no idea what plastic additive chemicals we are being exposed to, let alone what they might be doing to us.

Eleven of the identifiable chemicals were known metabolic disruptors. Scientists believe that many more of these unidentifiable chemicals could be EDCs with significant health impacts, but our knowledge of these “mystery chemicals” is appallingly limited.  

Shockingly, there are several known EDCs in everyday objects. Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in plastic containers and can leach into the beverages we drink and the food we eat. Manufacturers add phthalates, also called plasticizers, to countless household objects like hygiene products and vinyl flooring. Since the 2000s, these chemical additives have become increasingly prevalent in plastic products, namely food and beverage packaging.

How do these chemicals contribute to obesity?

The connection between EDCs and human obesity is still under investigation by scientists, but animal studies suggest that EDCs can influence the regulation of body weight by altering appetite, aiding in fat cell creation, and increasing fat retention. These chemicals bioaccumulate in our tissue and remain in our bodies for years, resulting in continuous exposure.  

Other studies show that these chemicals can alter glucose metabolism and stimulate fat storage. The chemicals block the connections between hormones produced by the endocrine system and their receptors, effectively disrupting the normal functions of metabolism and appetite. EDCs have also been linked to disorders associated with obesity, including insulin resistance, hypertension, and dyslipidemia

Thus, even individuals who exercise and consume a consistently healthy diet could experience adverse health impacts if exposed to enough EDCs over their lifetimes. While scientists continue to study the various ways that EDCs can interfere with our health and uncover new chemicals that play a role in obesity, we know enough about several of these disruptors to take action. 

So what can we do?

One way to curb the effects of EDCs on human health is to alter our behavior as consumers. It may seem like the only safe option is cutting out plastic completely, but in a world dominated by synthetic materials, this is nearly impossible. We can buy fewer products with known EDCs, such as BPA and phthalates, and we can use less plastic overall to reduce our exposure to potentially risky chemicals. 

An easy fix is to drink less bottled water. A recent study found that a single bottle of water contains thousands of nanoplastics, much more than previously estimated. Consider purchasing fewer items and beverages with plastic packaging and buy fresh or unpackaged food instead.  

Another simple solution is to vacuum your living space frequently — we ingest microplastics and microfibers in the air we breathe, and vacuuming can help reduce the amount of tiny synthetic particles that we ingest. 

Education and awareness of EDCs is also crucial. EDCs are especially harmful to children because they come into contact with more of these substances as they crawl and teethe. Aidan Charron with the End Plastics Initiatives feels especially strongly about this: “When I wrote EDO’s report, Babies vs. Plastics, I was shocked to discover just how uniquely at risk babies are when it comes to inhaling and ingesting microplastics. Parents need to know what they are giving to their kids.” In 2012, the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and cups, but items created before this ban could still contain harmful additives. 

Most importantly, we need substantial regulation to address known EDCs and increase research into potentially harmful chemicals. The BPA ban was necessary, but it only addressed the tip of the iceberg. The EU is currently preparing an initiative to ban BPA in food packaging, a move that the FDA continues to shy away from, claiming that the levels of BPA in packaging are safe. We must expand the small field of research and ask the FDA to constantly assess the risks of these chemicals. 

We must reinforce the responsibility of the government to put pressure on the producers of plastics with increased regulation — simply asking companies to stop using these cheap chemicals is not going to fix the problem. Implementing something similar to the EU’s REACH program, which requires manufacturers to record each chemical substance they use into a central database, can at the very least make this information accessible to consumers. 

Some even argue that the entire process for chemical approval is ineffective because it allows substances to enter the market before they have been adequately tested, and that the precautionary approach used by other countries like the UK allows for better protection of consumers. 

Plastic remains a constant environmental and human health concern. EARTHDAY.ORG’s theme for Earth Day 2024 is Planet vs. Plastics — we are dedicated to campaigning for an end to plastic pollution for our planet and for its people. Learn more about why we wish to End Plastics, and sign the Global Plastics Treaty today.