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A piece of the pie

Tackling part of the obesity epidemic through better chemical regulation

We are hearing a lot about obesity these days. More people are obese than ever—one-third of American children and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. The American Medical Association has declared that obesity is now a disease.

While some disagree with the designation of obesity as a disease, there is strong evidence that obesity is linked with diseases—specifically Type II diabetes and heart disease. There is also general agreement that obesity is a major public health problem. Preventing obesity would contribute to a healthier, happier population and save an estimated $190 billion per year in direct health care costs.   

But how do we prevent obesity?

We all know that we should eat healthier and exercise more to maintain a healthy weight. This can’t be understated. However, another way to tackle the problem could be through more effective regulation of toxic chemicals. Few people are aware that exposure to certain chemicals is linked with increased risk of obesity, especially during prenatal life and in childhood. An emerging body of science links chemicals that disrupt hormones to increased risk for obesity.

Fetuses and children are the most vulnerable to adverse health effects from hormone-disrupting chemicals. Like hormones themselves, these chemicals exert health impacts even at minute levels of exposure and exposures in the womb can have lifelong impacts.

As detailed in a new IATP fact sheet titled Chemicals and Obesity, an array of chemical “obesogens” may be contributing to the obesity epidemic. Obesogens are chemical agents that promote fat accumulation and alter feeding behaviors. They activate cell receptors to predispose them to fat accumulation. Obesogenic chemicals can affect the size and number of fat cells or the hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism. They can also cause changes in gene expression, or epigenetic changes, which can
have intergenerational impacts.  

It is now evident that a variety of environmental chemicals can act on cellular pathways to promote fat accumulation and obesity. We are all exposed to these chemicals every day through foods and food packaging and from an array of consumer products and building materials.  

Chemicals for which there is evidence of obesogenic activity include:

  • Bisphenol A, a chemical used in food packaging and plastic.
  • Phthalates, chemicals found in plastics and fragranced personal care products. 
  • Brominated flame retardants used in electronics and foam products.
  • Perfluroalkyls, “Teflon chemicals” used in food packaging and nonstick cookware. 

Evidence of obesity risk from chemical exposure is growing every day. A recent study found that 9–12 year old girls with higher levels of BPA in their urine had a twofold increase risk for obesity.

In light of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S., we need to take a closer look at the role of chemicals and undertake a public health prevention approach, which means preventing exposure to hormone disrupting, obesogenic chemicals whenever possible.

Policymakers need to better regulate toxic chemicals through reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). A recently introduced Chemical Safety Improvement Act aims to reform TSCA, but has some fundamental flaws as drafted. TSCA reform should address persistent, toxic bio-accumulative chemicals that build up in the food system and in the human body and chemicals linked to hormone disruption, obesity and other adverse health effects. In addition, downstream businesses and retailers should require the phase out the worst chemicals, including those linked with obesity, as in the case of our new collaborative campaign called Mind the Store.

Read IATP’s new fact sheet on toxic chemicals and obesity.