Chemicals in Plastic May Be Bad News for Mothers and Babies

Emily Johnson Plastic Chemicals

Coral Hahn-Townsend presents “Metabolic dysfunction induced by prenatal exposure to Bisphenol-A and Diethylhexyl Phthalate: exacerbation by a high fat diet” at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting in San Diego. Credit: Emily Johnson

If you’re a health-conscious shopper, you’ve probably noticed a new generation of “healthier” plastics popping up in grocery stores. These new plastics are “BPA-free,” which means a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA) has been replaced with alternative chemicals. But are chemicals in plastic really something to be concerned about? Researchers from the University of Georgia and Michigan State University who study this question presented their findings at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.

Coral Hahn-Townsend and other members of the research team studied how BPA and another chemical in plastic, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), affected baby rats who were exposed to these chemicals during their mother’s pregnancy. “BPA is kind of like estrogen, and DEHP is an anti-androgen,” meaning they are endocrine disruptors, Hahn-Townsend explains. A lot of people are exposed to these chemicals in the environment, and it’s possible that they have an effect on our body weight and metabolism, she says.

After exposing the pregnant rats to the chemicals, the researchers studied their litters into adult life. Adult rats exposed to BPA and DEHP as fetuses had higher body weight than unexposed rats. They also showed early signs of diabetes, which worsened when the research team fed them high-fat diets.

Plasticizers—chemicals such as BPA and DEHP used to create plastic containers—are extremely common in both food products and the environment. However, scientists are only starting to understand how these chemicals may affect our bodies. Stay tuned for future research on their effects on present and future generations of humans and animals.

Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson, PhD, is an APS member and a former volunteer editor for the I Spy Physiology blog.

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