Counting the cost of chemicals in the home

By Sam Crothers

If you’re exercising and avoiding sugar but still piling on the pounds, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at your house – and all the stuff that’s in it. Researchers are now discovering that weight issues – obesity in particular – could be linked to chemicals in everyday household products and materials.

More than half a billion people around the world have a body mass index of more than 30 – making them obese – and the rates are increasing. In the United States the number of adults affected is just over one in three; in Australia the story is much the same. Kids are getting fatter too. According to the World Health Organisation, if current trends continue there’ll be 70 million obese or overweight kids around the world by 2025.

Obesity is linked to a range of health issues including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The medical costs amount to around US$200 billion a year in the US, and more than AU$14.5 billion a year in Australia. Indirect expenditure (like reduced productivity) piles extra costs on top.

So, what causes obesity? Food and lack of exercise are the obvious answers, but researchers are finding that obesity rates could also be related to chemical exposure.

Obesogens, a group of endocrine disrupting chemicals that adversely affect normal hormonal functions in the body, are taking the starring role in academic studies about the causes of obesity. According to Amanda Janesick and Bruce Blumberg from the University of California, obesogens play an important part in fat cell functioning, letting the body know when to store fat, and influencing the body’s hunger drive.

The work of Janesick and Blumberg showed that exposure to obesogens early in life can affect a person’s ability to lose weight as an adult. Research led by Michael Skinner from Washington State University has also shown that single-generation exposure to obesogens can affect many subsequent generations, with harmful ‘epigenic’ effects showing up in the great-great grandchildren of rats exposed to a fungicide obesogen in a study in 2005.

While a growing number of compelling links have been made between chemicals and obesity, further research is needed to ascertain the extent of human susceptibility, including the levels at which obesogen exposure can take effect.

Obesogens are widespread. They’re found in food and water and a vast range of materials and products around the home. Obesogens lurking in the average home include:

  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – used in non-stick cookware and stain repellants on carpets and mattresses,
  • Phthalates – found in shower curtains and vinyl flooring,
  • Organotins and bisphenol A (BPA) found in plastics and resins, and
  • Fungacides used in antifungal treatments on wood and textiles.

Obesogens are also in pesticides, personal care products like shampoo, household cleaners, electronics, and flame retardants.

So how do obesogens get into the body? Like most chemicals, obesogens can be released from products and materials through a process called “off-gassing” which takes place when chemicals vaporize in the air. Once they’re in the air, these chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and lungs. Obesogens can also enter the body after consumption of contaminated food or water. If you’re regularly exposed to obesogens, you could be putting yourself at greater risk of weight problems.

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