Multiple and Interacting Contributors to Obesity

Written by Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise MillerThe obesity rate for children aged 2-5 years dropped a stunning 43% over the past decade, according to a report published last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is of course extremely good news. Researchers, however, are not sure what combination of factors may have contributed to this significant decrease. Some theories are that a number of programs, such as the federally-funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) initiative, which now subsidizes proportionately more vegetables and whole grains, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which focuses on improving exercise and eating habits in child care settings, are making a difference. Others suggest that former New York Mayor Bloomberg’s declaration that restaurants should no longer use transfats has played a role or that programs started in the 1980s when people became aware that there was a growing obesity problem are finally having a positive effect on this new generation.

Little public consideration, however, has been given to whether any reduction in chemical exposures might be another factor. A growing body of scientific literature suggests that some synthetic chemicals may contribute to obesity—chemicals now referred to as obesogens. For example, prenatal exposures to BPA (bisphenol-A) have been associated with obesity-related outcomes as well as other health concerns. Because of consumer pressure, BPA has been removed from many baby bottles, cashier receipts, and can linings over the last few years. Notably, during approximately the same period, NHANES (the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey funded by the CDC) reported a reduction in BPA found in blood and urine.

Another example is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOAs), which are chemicals found in protective coatings of packaging products, clothes, furniture, and non-stick cookware. These too have been associated with obesity. Heightened media reports on studies linking Teflon and other PFOAs to health problems, like obesity, have also raised strong concerns among consumers. In response, DuPont, a major manufacturer of products with PFOA, has now committed to no longer make, buy, or use PFOAs by 2015. Already, DuPont has significantly reduced its manufacture and use of the chemicals, meaning that human exposure levels have likely gone down.

I could mention other examples, but the point is this: We know that some people who do exercise and make healthy food choices remain obese despite their best efforts. We also know that obesity has multiple and interacting contributors to its onset. What we don’t know is whether any decrease in exposures to obesogens may have played a role in the major reduction of obesity in children aged 2-5 years. Given recent scientific studies on obesogens, however, we have a collective responsibility to evaluate and address possible chemical contributors along with the mix of lifestyle factors currently prioritized in order to more effectively protect public health.

Of course, it’s easier to tell people they should just exercise more and eat better, than to curb exposures to chemicals that have become the building blocks for so many of our consumer products and are ubiquitous in our air, water, and soil. But this is all the more reason to press for chemical policy reform, catalyze market change, and promote the use of green chemistry—in addition to improving personal behavior.

CHE’s particular role in our collective efforts is to bring attention to the emerging environmental health science and to catalyze strategic collaboration in order to bolster all of these critical initiatives. We look forward to continuing to serve you as well as current and future generations in this way.

See also a further analysis of the drop in the preschool obesity rate: A plunge in U.S. preschool obesity? Not so fast, experts say.

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