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Researchers at New York University found that obesity is more common in adolescents with higher concentrations of urinary bisphenol A (BPA), a low-grade estrogen found in plastic bottles, food containers and most aluminum cans.
Studies have linked BPA to obesity, infertility, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes and infertility -- though most have been limited to testing on rodents.
Still, the potential danger was enough that in 2010, Canada banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and children's sippy cups. A similar ban is in effect in the US.
But BPA still exists in many food and drink containers, as well as common household items like electronics and auto parts.
"This is the first association of an environmental chemical in childhood obesity in a large, nationally representative sample," lead investigator Dr. Leonardo Trasande said in a press release.
"Our findings further demonstrate the need for a broader paradigm in the way we think about the obesity epidemic. Unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity certainly contribute to increased fat mass, but the story clearly doesn't end there."
The study looked at 3,000 kids between the ages of six and 19, and controlled for factors like race, ethnicity, age, caregiver education, income, calorie intake and television watching. They found kids with high levels of BPA were more than 2.6 times as likely to be obese.
Curiously, this association was only found in white children.
"We know of no dietary differences that would explain why white (children) would have a higher level of obesity," Trasande told QMI Agency. "Another explanation is there is a genetic predisposition that explains the finding."
Tresande said the ban for baby bottles and sippy cups isn't enough. Older children and teenagers continue to drink and eat from BPA-laden containers.
"Most people agree that the majority of BPA exposure comes from aluminum cans," he said. "Our results raise the question of exposure to BPA in consumer products used by older children."
The study will be published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
-- with files from Charles-Antoine Rouyer