A controversial chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to harden plastics, is contributing to the global obesity epidemic, according to new research.
The claims by biologist Frederick vom Saal come as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule this week -- after four years of study -- on whether to ban the plastic additive from use in food packaging.
Vom Saal told The Daily he will soon release a new study showing that mothers who expose their fetuses to BPA run the risk of having obese children.
"During the development of the fetus, BPA exposure alters the development of stem cells," vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri, said. "Think of it as tripping a switch in the DNA. BPA turns out to be a major factor in the number of fat cells that a person will have later in life."
BPA first came to public consciousness in 2007 when concerns were raised that it was leaching from reusable water bottles, leading to most companies reformulating their containers. But the organic compound is still so ubiquitous that it has been found in the urine of 93 percent of Americans over age six. It is used to line metal food and beverage cans, and is found in dental sealants, household appliances and sports equipment.
Critics label BPA an "endocrine disruptor" that acts like synthetic estrogen and link it to a wide range of ailments, including cancer. But its scientific defenders -- as well as regulatory agencies in the United States, Australia, the European Union, Japan, and New Zealand -- say there is no evidence that the minuscule exposure that consumers receive poses a health risk.
Vom Saal said his study shows that even trace amounts of the chemical are enough to disrupt a developing child's genetic structure and lead to metabolic disorders.
His findings are just the latest new evidence that BPA may be playing a role in the global obesity epidemic. Another study released in February by a Spanish research team showed that even small amounts of BPA cause human adult islet cells to produce more fat in the body.
After long declaring that BPA was safe in low doses, the FDA amended its position on the chemical in 2010, stating that ongoing research showed that there was cause for "some concern" for its effects on fetuses and children. In response to a court order, the FDA is now reviewing whether BPA should be removed from food containers, and has agreed to make a decision by Saturday.