Plastic chemicals can seep into the body and cause weight gain, study reveals

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Plastics and the environment don’t exactly have a great relationship. Now, new research finds plastic products may be making it harder for people to keep off excess weight. Scientists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology say certain chemicals in plastic packaging and other goods can seep into the human body and interfere with a person’s metabolism — leading to weight gain.

“Our experiments show that ordinary plastic products contain a mix of substances that can be a relevant and underestimated factor behind overweight and obesity,” says Martin Wagner, an associate professor at NTNU’s Department of Biology, in a university release.

Study authors examined 34 plastic products in their lab to reach these findings. Products analyzed included items people touch on a daily basis such as food wrappers, water bottles, and kitchen sponges. In all, the team found an astounding 55,000 distinct chemical components within the plastic products, formally identifying 629 of the substances. Importantly, scientists say 11 of those substances cause metabolic issues — hence their name metabolism-disrupting chemicals.

For a long time, scientists believed that plastic chemicals largely stayed in plastic. Unfortunately, in recent years it has become more and more clear that isn’t the case. Recent research performed by the same team that conducted this study reports plastic chemicals tend to “leach” into their surrounding environments. That means when people handle plastic goods some of those chemicals can potentially enter their bodies. Furthermore, additional research also indicates certain plastics contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals capable of adversely affecting both development and fertility.

Plastic chemicals building more fat cells

Roughly one-third of the plastic goods analyzed for this project contain chemicals that “contribute to the development of fat cells,” according to the study authors. More specifically, the chemical substances within these plastics actually altered precursor cells to transform into fat cells. Even worse, those new fat cells then go on to proliferate and build even more fat.

The team notes that some plastic products contained no known metabolism-disrupting chemicals, but still promoted the development of more fat cells. This confirms the theory that there are more unidentified plastic chemicals which contribute to weight gain.

“It’s very likely that it is not the usual suspects, such as Bisphenol A, causing these metabolic disturbances. This means that other plastic chemicals than the ones we already know could be contributing to overweight and obesity,” explains first study author Johannes Völker, who is affiliated with NTNU’s Department of Biology.

Roughly two billion people worldwide are technically overweight, according to health guidelines. Considering how widespread and ubiquitous plastic goods are, one can’t help but wonder just how much of a role these chemicals are playing in society’s fight against obesity.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.