Chemicals Found in Everyday Plastics and Pesticides May Contribute to Obesity, Researcher Says

Environmental chemicals found in everyday plastics and pesticides may predispose people to be obese, according to a University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) scientist.

Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences in MU's College of Arts and Science, has found that when fetuses are exposed to these chemicals, the way their genes function may be altered to make them more prone to obesity and disease.

"Certain environmental substances called endocrine-disrupting chemicals can change the functioning of a fetus's genes, altering a baby's metabolic system and predisposing him or her to obesity. This individual could eat the same thing and exercise the same amount as someone with a normal metabolic system, but he or she would become obese, while the other person remained thin. This is a serious problem because obesity puts people at risk for other problems, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension," vom Saal said.

Using lab mice, vom Saal has studied the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. According to his findings, which he presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (held Feb. 15-19), endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause mice to be born at very low birth weights and then gain abnormally large amounts of weight in a short period of time, more than doubling their body weight in just seven days. Vom Saal followed the mice as they got older and found that these mice were obese throughout their lives. He said studies of low-birth-weight children have shown a similar overcompensation after birth, resulting in lifelong obesity.

"The babies are born with a low body weight and a metabolic system that's been programmed for starvation. This is called a 'thrifty phenotype,' a system designed to maximize the use of all food taken into the body. The problem comes when the baby isn't born into a world of starvation, but into a world of fast food restaurants and fatty foods," vom Saal said.

More research must be done to determine which chemicals cause this effect. According to vom Saal, there are approximately 55,000 human-made chemicals in the world, and 1,000 of those might fall into the category of endocrine disrupting. These chemicals are found in common products, from plastic bottles and containers to pesticides and electronics.

"You inherit genes, but how those genes develop during your very early life also plays an important role in your propensity for obesity and disease. People who have abnormal metabolic systems have to live extremely different lifestyles in order to not be obese because their systems are malfunctioning," vom Saal said. "We need to figure out what we can do to understand and prevent this."

Frederick vom Saal: http://endocrinedisruptors.missouri.edu/vomsaal/vomsaal.html

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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