BPA and Childhood Obesity Linked, But Questions Remain

Aluminum cans still contain the chemical, known to have toxic effects.

BPA, a chemical found in aluminum cans, may be associated with higher rates of obesity in kids and teens, although researchers aren't sure why. (Photo: Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images)

Sep 19, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

BPA, the vilified chemical associated with a host of health risks, may now be connected to obesity in children and teens. The reason for the association, however, may still be a puzzle.

Bisphenol A, a chemical found in a huge variety of products, was banned from children’s drink containers in July by the Food and Drug Administration, which cited toxicity risks. But a study this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that young people may not be off the hook. Scientists found that children who had the highest concentrations of BPA also tended to be heavier.

The study group was a national sample of 2,838 kids aged 6 to 19 who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. BPA was measured via their urine.

MORE: Jane Says: Get BPA Out of Your Kitchen

Those with the greatest levels of the chemical had a 2.6 higher chance of being obese compared to those with the lowest amount of BPA. In the highest-level BPA group, 22.3 percent of the children were obese, while in the lowest level group only 10.3 percent were obese. This stayed the same after the study authors adjusted for a number of factors, including how many calories they ate, how much TV they watched and their gender.

But that wasn’t all researchers found. The link between obesity and BPA levels was only significant among white kids and teens. And obesity was not associated with levels of phenols, potentially toxic chemicals found in soaps, sunscreens and throat lozenges.

The study, the authors wrote, “when considered in isolation, is at best hypothesis-generating.” They went on to say that since obesity doesn’t happen overnight, no cause and effect can be inferred from this cross-sectional link of BPA levels and weight gain, even as evidence mounts.

MORE: Toxins in Food Packaging Aren't Going Away

The findings may pose more questions than they answer. If there is a cause and effect of BPA consumption and obesity, is the opposite true—do obese children eat more foods that contain BPA? Since researchers don’t know exactly what foods the kids ate and where it came from, there’s no way to know.

And what would explain the fact that a link between the chemical and obesity was only found among whites? Does exposure to BPA produce different effects in various ethnic or racial groups?

Despite these yet unanswered questions, lead author Dr. Leonardo Trasande of the NYU School of Medicine was fairly certain about one thing: "Most people agree the majority of BPA exposure in the United States comes from aluminum cans," he said in a news release. "This data adds to already existing concerns about BPA and further supports the call to limit exposure of BPA in this country, especially in children. Removing it from aluminum cans is probably one of the best ways we can limit exposure. There are alternatives that manufacturers can use to line aluminum cans."

Do you try to limit our consumption of canned goods to avoid BPA contamination? Let us know in the comments.

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