The Independent: Pollution can make you fat, study claims
Children exposed to pesticide in womb twice as likely to be overweight, refuting idea of sole personal responsibility. Geoffrey Lean reports
Sunday, 7 September 2008
Pollution can make children fat, startling new research shows. A groundbreaking Spanish study indicates that exposure to a range of common chemicals before birth sets up a baby to grow up stout, thus helping to drive the worldwide obesity epidemic.
The results of the study, just published – the first to link chemical contamination in the womb with one of the developing world's greatest and fastest-growing health crises – carry huge potential implications for public policy around the globe. They undermine recent strictures from the Conservative leader, David Cameron, that blame solely the obese for their own condition.
A quarter of all British adults and a fifth of children are obese – four times as many as 30 years ago. And so are at least 300 million people worldwide. The main explanation is that they are consuming more calories than they burn. But there is growing evidence that diet and lack of exercise, though critical, cannot alone explain the rapid growth of the epidemic.
It has long been known that genetics give people different metabolisms, making some gain weight more easily than others. But the new study by scientists at Barcelona's Municipal Institute of Medical Research suggests that pollution may similarly predispose people to get fat.
The research, published in the current issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica, measured levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a pesticide, in the umbilical cords of 403 children born on the Spanish island of Menorca, from before birth. It found that those with the highest levels were twice as likely to be obese when they reached the age of six and a half.
HCB, which was mainly used to treat seeds, has been banned internationally since the children were born, but its persistence ensures that it remains in the environment and gets into food.
The importance of the study is not so much in identifying one chemical, as in showing what is likely to be happening as a result of contact with many of them. Its authors call for exposures to similar pesticides to be "minimised".
Experiments have shown that many chemicals fed to pregnant animals cause their offspring to grow up obese. These include organotins, long employed in antifouling paints on ships and now widely found in fish; bisphenol A (BPA), used in baby bottles and to line cans of food, among countless other applications; and phthalates, found in cosmetics, shampoos, plastics to wrap food, and in a host of other everyday products.