Speaking at a high-level workshop held in Racine, Wisconsin, World Obesity senior policy advisor, Dr Tim Lobstein, urged for greater attention to policies to counter the effects of man-made chemical obesogens.
The meeting had been called to examine the impact of man-made chemicals in the environment defined as ‘environmental obesogens’ capable of raising the risk of obesity. Researchers and clinicians gathered in early September for a two-day evaluation of the evidence and preparation of a scientific consensus statement, coordinated by Dr Jerry Heindel, Director of HEEDS, an advocacy group concerned with endocrine disruptors and their impact on human health.
World Obesity was invited to contribute to the workshop and to discuss the policy issues that arise as a consequence of exposure to polluting chemicals in the environment (see our previous news item here) and policy analysis paper in Obesity Reviews here.
The 30 expert participants described the physiological mechanisms and medical implications for persistent pollutants as a cause of weight gain, and how the mechanisms bypassed the traditional assumption that weight change is simply a result of an imbalance between ‘energy in’ (food and beverages) and ‘energy out’ (sedentary behavior and physical activity).
Endocrine disrupting chemicals can affect appetite regulation, alter the number and size of fat storage cells, and change how readily lipids accumulate in those cells.
There are several thousand types of persistent man-made pollutants (sometimes knowns as ‘forever chemicals’ due to their resistance to degradation and their bio-accumulation) and their impact on health is still being explored. The last decade has seen a rapid increase in scientific studies showing in laboratory animals and in human populations that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is linked to increased fat accumulation and higher bodyweight.
Methods for measuring exposure to the chemicals and their effects are still being improved and the relative importance of these chemicals as drivers of the world-wide obesity epidemic remains to be clarified, with some reports suggesting the chemicals account for only a small percentage of the rise in obesity prevalence, while others suggest that the true contribution may be much larger, given the multiple chemicals people are exposed to simultaneously and their potential for interactive enhancement.
In the final section of the workshop, we raised the issues of policy and regulation of chemical producers, and the importance of the ‘chemical obesogen’ story to challenge political narratives that blame people for their weight gain. We suggested that individual-based solutions, such as telling people to avoid chemicals which are present in food products, food packaging, household furnishings, roadside pollution and water supplies, are unrealistic.
Further, the development of medical treatments to counter the effects of endocrine disruptors were probably many years away, and would be an inadequate response to the spread of obesity worldwide. Population level policies are needed to restrict the production and use of health-damaging chemicals, and this is recognised internationally by the Sustainable Development Goals and subsequent actions.
To support policies to restrict chemical pollution, we need confirmed evidence that these chemicals are a health hazard, including showing that they account for a significant proportion of the obesity epidemic, and we need strongly-worded statements of expert opinion to add weight to consumers’ concerns. A statement from the workshop has been drafted and will be published later this year.
Meanwhile, we will continue to raise questions about the role of polluting chemicals in causing obesity, and will continue to challenge the narrative that individual behavior change is sufficient to prevent weight gain. Obesogens that are invisible and widespread need to be tackled as a social issue, at national and international level.