Unusual Suspects: Research Connects Chemical Exposure & Obesity

February 29, 2012

by Kadesha Thomas, HSC writer and researcher

It looks like basic household items may need to come with a nutrition label. Research is mounting a strong case that eating too many calories and not getting enough exercise aren’t the only reasons why childhood obesity has tripled over the last generation. It could also be your handbag, your carpet, your window blinds, and — get this— your diabetes medication.

A study published this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives nicknames the culprits “obesogens.” These are dietary, pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals that have been linked to changing our body’s process of converting food to energy and then burning that energy through activity. 

Most of these chemical obesogens may also work as endocrine disruptors. As the study authors explain: “The main role of fat cells is to store energy and release it when needed. Scientists also now know that fat tissue acts as an endocrine organ, releasing hormones related to appetite and metabolism. . . Different obesogenic compounds may have different mechanisms of action, some affecting the number of fat cells, others the size of fat cells, and still others the hormones that affect appetite, satiety, food preferences, and energy metabolism.” When pregnant women are exposed, the effects can then be passed on to children, making them more prone to weight gain and obesity as they develop.

So far, 15 to 20 chemicals have been linked to weight gain in human and animal studies. Here are a few of them:

  • Chemical pesticides in food and water
  • Certain drugs, like the diabetes drug Avandia
  • MSG or monosodium glutamate
  • Phytoestrogens found in soy products
  • Organotins found in handbags, wallpaper, vinyl blinds and vacuum cleaner dust
  • Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in medical devices, some canned foods, plastic water and baby bottles
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a surface protectant found in nonstick cookware, scotchgard carpeting, mattresses and some furniture surfaces
  • Pthalates, used to make everyday soft plastics and solvents, like shower curtains, carpeting, toys, food packaging, raincoats, vinyl flooring, detergents, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo

Researchers are trying to determine how much these obesogens have contributed to the rapid increase in obesity. They are also examining how much these chemicals could undermine efforts to address obesity through diet and exercise, particularly in children. Several federal agencies have even warmed up to the idea that chemicals can cause weight gain, including the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

If it’s true that these obesity-causing chemicals are so pervasive in our everyday environment, we have a couple of options:

  1. We can relocate to a secluded jungle and hope there are no obesogens in campfires and latrines. 
  2. We can throw up our hands on this whole obesity thing — cancel our work-out plans and head to the nearest drive-thru for an extra large whatever.
  3. Or we can accept what we can and cannot control, making healthy lifestyle choices whenever possible and advocating for policies that support our — and our kids’— wellness with regard to eating, physical activity and environmental exposures such as these.

There are environmental factors that influence our health. This budding research about obesogens should inspire us to continue advocating for healthy lifestyles and healthy school environments within our circle of influence. That means making healthy choices in our homes, speaking up for healthy environments in school, and raising our voices for policies that support health at a national level. 

This research underscores the importance of supporting efforts for policy changes that can have a broader impact -– on the food we eat, the opportunities we have to be active and the chemicals we’re exposed to every day. 

Plus: Check out this post from 2009 discussing HSC's perspective on the emerging research connecting chemical exposures and obesity.