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Obesity. Is it caused by our environment?

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

Are they the cause of our obesity epidemic?


     For years I have been going to Second Cup for my morning coffee and blueberry muffin. I use my own stainless steel mug because I feel it’s better for the environment and I have avoided the use of thousands of paper coffee cups. I also use a stainless steel water bottle when I play basketball or baseball because the thought of all those plastic bottles filling up our landfills is disgusting to me.

However, it turns out that in my effort to be ecologically respectful, I have actually kept my body thin because I have avoided the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in these substances that many say is the cause of our obese society.

Of course our appetite for fast food, sugary drinks and the amount of time we just spend sitting are great contributors to our obese society. But what if all of our indulgent desires were actually inbred from birth and caused by specific chemicals?

In a recent study published in the journal Health Perspectives two rodents may have the clue as to why the world is so fat. They simply took two mice that were exactly the same genetically, raised them in the same lab and fed them the exact same food. One mouse looked totally normal and yet the second mouse became extremely obese.

The only difference was that the obese mouse was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. This brief exposure programmed the mouse to increase the number of fat cells and accumulate more fat. Everything else in the experiment was constant. The caloric intake of the mice was identical as was the caloric output. And yet long after the chemical was gone from the body, the obese mouse continued to put on more fat.

Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that mimic hormones and therefore confuse the body. They were originally linked to a number of cancers and the malformation of sex hormones, especially those of amphibians and fish found in our lakes. Now the latest research also links them to the storage of fat.

Bruce Blumberg, a development biologist at the University of California, Irvine, has published a number of peer-reviewed studies that have confirmed the finding of at least 20 substances, all of them endocrine-disruptors, and aptly named by him in his paper, “obesogens”.

Many of the chemicals he has identified as obesogens are chemicals found in plastics, canned food, agricultural chemicals, foam cushions and even jet fuel. Recently a study found that triflumazole; a fungicide used on many food crops, like leafy green vegetables, causes obesity in mice. This is not a problem to those of us who wash our vegetables but it is a severe problem to the farmers, field workers and all the people associated with producing the crop. Many women and very young children harvest most of the crops in third world countries and even in places like California.  Another recent study showed that women with a pesticide residue in the blood gave birth to children who were more likely to be overweight at 14 months.

It is really not very clear if most of these obesogens will do any harm to an adult although few studies have been done. But it is clear that most of the harm is done in utero and during the early childhood years so the greatest impact of these chemicals is on fetuses and children before they reach puberty.

It is interesting that physicians warn pregnant women about the dangers of smoking or drinking alcohol and a very small percentage will even warn them about pesticides. But do any of them warn pregnant woman about BPA (an endocrine disruptor in plastic bottles and cash register receipts)? Do any of them warn pregnant women about phthalates (endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics and shampoos)?

We warn pregnant women not eat mercury laden fish such as swordfish but we should also be telling them to eat organic to avoid the intake of all the pesticides.

It would be wonderful if these endocrine-disruptors really are the cause of our obese society because then we could really do something about it. After all, you cannot stop people from eating bad food but if we take away their desire and their ability to grow fat, our whole society would be healthier.

We limited the use of tobacco with strict laws about advertising and smoke-free environments. We removed the lead from gasoline and paint to protect our children’s brains. We have removed many chemicals used in the housing industry to make our homes a much safer environment. We could do some more research and if these chemicals really are the culprits then we can pass laws that eliminate them from our society. I am sure that we can grow food, produce paper receipts and cups and even make plastic bottles that are free from endocrine-disrupting hormones. Do we really need these chemicals in our couches and seat cushions?

The manufacturers would put up a good fight but when it comes to health we usually win out and we could possibly end the obesity epidemic.



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