Can your fabric choices make you fat?

31 01 2013

We have all heard the stories of our “growing obesity epidemic” – especially in western nations. It’s an important national problem, and is partly responsible for our soaring health care costs. We often point to obesity as being caused by overeating, fast food, and/or sedentary lifestyles for those having a genetic predisposition to the disease. But the rates of obesity have escalated in such an exponential manner that the commonly held causes of obesity – overeating and inactivity – cannot explain the current obesity epidemic. A growing number of studies have suggested a new culprit: environmental rather than genetic causes.

Our world is different than it was 100 years ago. We have developed many synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals to make our lives easier – and used them in a fabulously wide range of products. In fact, you could say, as some do, that we’re living in a toxic soup of these chemicals. And those chemicals are changing us. Some of the chemicals changing us are called “endocrine disruptors” (which we discussed in last week’s post) since they interfere with the body’s hormone balance, which confuses the body. Initially, they caused 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.

It has been found that the developing organism (us!) is extremely sensitive to chemicals with estrogenic or endocrine disrupting activity and that exposure to these chemicals during critical stages of development may have permanent long-lasting consequences, some of which may not be expressed or detected until later in life.(1)

But back to obesity, which is what we’re concentrating on this week. (I know it’s difficult to stay on task, because these chemicals are synergistic, have multi-dimensional effects and often degrade into different substances altogether).

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last weekend, talked about the results of a study which I found disturbing. Look at these two mice:

The only difference between these mice: The one at the top was exposed at birth to a tiny amount of an endocrine-disrupting chemical.  New York Times

The only difference between these mice: The one at the top was exposed at birth to a tiny amount of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. New York Times

According to Kristof, “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 (2) . 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.”

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.

Manufacturers have already exploited obesogens by using them to fatten livestock, and by formulating pharmaceuticals to induce weight gain in grossly underweight patients. A study by Dr. Baillie-Hamilton presents the hypothesis that the current level of human exposure to these chemicals may have damaged many of the body’s natural weight-control mechanisms and that these effects, together with a wide range of additional, possibly synergistic, factors may play a significant role in the worldwide obesity epidemic.(3) And these changes continue generation after generation. It’s clear that the most important time for exposure is in utero and during childhood.(4)

The magazine Scientific American recently asked whether doctors should do more to warn pregnant women about certain chemicals.(5)  It cited a survey indicating that only 19% of doctors cautioned pregnant women about pesticides, only 8% about BPA (an endocrine disruptor in some plastics and receipts), and only 5% about phthalates (endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics and shampoos). Dr. Blumberg, the pioneer of the field, says he strongly recommends that people — especially children and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant — try to eat organic foods to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors, and try to avoid using plastics to store food or water. “My daughter uses a stainless steel water bottle, and so do I,” he said.

Endocrine disruptors are found in fabrics – Greenpeace did a study of 141 clothing items purchased in 29 different countries from authorized retailers. Endocrine disruptors were found in 89 of the 141 articles tested. According to the report: “Overall, a variety of hazardous chemicals were detected within the broad range of high street fashion textile products analysed. These covered a diverse range of brands and countries of manufacture. These results indicate the ongoing – and in some cases widespread – use of hazardous chemicals in the manufacture of textile products openly marketed to consumers.”

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). But what about our children, and their children? How does fabric processing impact my weight, or my child’s weight? Should I avoid certain processing chemicals in my own home?

The government made a tremendous impact on public health when it outlawed lead in gasoline. Now we need to make those same hard choices about doing without some of the things we’ve learned to like but which we know to be impacting our health. Support the Safe Chemicals Act and spread the word. This is too important to ignore.

[1] Newbold, R. R., Padilla-Banks, E., Snyder, R. J. and Jefferson, W. N. (2005), Developmental exposure to estrogenic compounds and obesity. Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology, 73: 478–480. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20147

[2] Newbold, R. R., Padilla-Banks, E., Snyder, R. J. and Jefferson, W. N. (2005), Developmental exposure to estrogenic compounds and obesity. Birth Defects Research Part A: Clinical and Molecular Teratology, 73: 478–480. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20147

[3] Baillie-Hamilton, PF, “Chemical toxins: a hypothesis to explain the global obesity epidemic”, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, April 2002,

[4] Blumberg, Bruce et al, “Transgenerational Inheritance of Increased Fat Depot Size, Stem Cell Reprogramming, and Hepatic Steatosis Elicited by Prenatal Obesogen Tributyltin in Mice”, Environmental Health Perspectives, January 15, 2013.

[5] Kay, Jane, “Should Doctors Warn Pregnant Women about Environmental Risks?”, Scientific American, December 10, 2012.

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Fire retardants and mistrust of scientific data

8 08 2012

You may have read the series published by the Chicago Tribune which began on May 7, “Playing With Fire”, in which they expose the history of fire retardants which are used in furniture in the United States. The Tribune found that:

  • Chemicals that are used in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs to slow fire do not work.
  • Some fire retardant materials used over the years pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A lot of household furniture is chock full of these chemicals. They escape from the furniture and settle in dust. That’s particularly dangerous for toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths.

According to an editorial which was published in the Tribune on May 11, “you have been sold a false sense of security about the risk of your furniture burning, and you’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals you didn’t know about. If you’re not angry, you ought to be”.

How were U.S. consumers and manufacturers sold on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals?

According to the series:

  • It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry[1].  A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.  The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals  and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.  An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”  But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.
  • A prominent burn doctor’s misleading testimony was part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals. The chemical industry “has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact,” the authors wrote.  To read about this, click here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks

As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, said: It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.  To read his editorial, click here.

What I find intriguing about this expose is how the chemical lobby was able to pull this off.  We have known the science behind fire retardants for many years, just as we know the science behind global climate change.  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication , in conjunction with the Gallup Group, found that although most Americans (66%) now believe  climate change is happening,  only 42% believe that it is caused by human activities.[2]  Will scholars a thousand years from now wonder why, after scientists had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have published a book, Merchants of Doubt, that explores what they say is the widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus by the American public.[3]  They probe the history of organized campaigns, (similar to the one done by the three fire retardant manufacturers in the Playing with Fire series), to create public doubt and confusion about science.

In a review of the book which appeared in American Scientist, Robert Proctor says that the authors demonstrate “how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.”

The story, he says, helps explain why  “these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease”.  Rachael Carson is now, in this revisionist world,  blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT.

But what is at the bottom of all this is the definition of the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute.  Robert Proctor says the doubt mongers  “are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.”


[2] “Climate Change in the American Mind”, May 15, 2012, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,   MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,  Bloomsbury Press, 2010.