Get Educated

These Chemicals Are Making Us Fat

Suzanne Price

Photo courtesy of Retha R. Newbold, NY Times.

In January of 2013, Nicholas D. Kristof, of the New York Times, wrote a fascinating op-ed piece about the part that chemicals are playing in the obesity epidemic in America. What amazes me now, a year and half later, is that the dramatic evidence he laid out seems to have done little to change our public policy or health education in this country. We still talk mostly about TV and junk food, of course major culprits, but we focus too little on the environmental toxins that predispose many of our children to obesity before they are even born. See below for excerpts from Kristof’s article and read the full article here

“ONE of the puzzles of the modern world is why we humans are growing so tubby. Maybe these two mice offer a clue.

They’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American.

The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. The brief exposure programmed the mouse to put on fat, and although there were no significant differences in caloric intake or expenditure, it continued to put on flab long after the chemical was gone.

That experiment is one of a growing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies suggesting that one factor in the industrialized world’s obesity epidemic (along with Twinkies, soda and television) may be endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals are largely unregulated — they are in food, couches, machine receipts and shampoos — and a raft of new studies suggest that they can lead to the formation of more and larger fat cells.”

“Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that mimic hormones and therefore confuse the body. Initially, they provoked concern because of their links to cancers and the malformation of sex organs. Those concerns continue, but the newest area of research is the impact that they have on fat storage.

Bruce Blumberg, a developmental biologist at the University of California, Irvine, coined the term “obesogen” in a 2006 journal article to refer to chemicals that cause animals to store fat. Initially, this concept was highly controversial among obesity experts, but a growing number of peer-reviewed studies have confirmed his finding and identified some 20 substances as obesogens.

The role of these chemicals has been acknowledged by the presidential task force on childhood obesity, and the National Institutes of Health has become a major funder of research on links between endocrine disruptors and both obesity and diabetes.

Among chemicals identified as obesogens are materials in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and jet fuel. For example, a study in the fall found that triflumizole, a fungicide used on many food crops, like leafy vegetables, causes obesity in mice.

...A new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that endocrine disruptors that are sometimes added to PVC plastic cause mice to grow obese and suffer liver problems — and the effect continues with descendants of those mice, generation after generation.

Another study found that women with a pesticide residue in their blood bore babies who were more likely to be overweight at the age of 14 months.

That’s a common thread: The most important time for exposure appears to be in utero and in childhood. It’s not clear whether most obesogens will do much to make an ordinary adult, even a pregnant woman, fatter (although one has been shown to do so), and the greatest impact seems to be on fetuses and on children before puberty.”

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