• Stodia Jackson

Obesogens: The Environmental Chemicals Linked to Obesity

Obesity is a global public health concern that affects both children and adults. It has added to health costs due to its associations with a number of other health issues including, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndromes, and cancers. The popular medical perspective on obesity is that it is the result of an imbalance in calorie intake and energy spent. As a result, the most commonly suggested solution to reverse or deal with obesity is to go on diet regimens and exercise. However, there is mounting evidence that is moving away from this point of view, and bringing to light the environmental chemicals and substances called obesogens as the cause of the spike in obesity.

Obesogens in general terms are chemicals that lead to obesity in humans. Research studies have provided convincing evidence on chemical substances (obesogens) found in pharmaceutical, dietary and industrial compounds that change metabolic processes and make people susceptible to weight gain if they are exposed to them. There is a growing list of chemical compounds in the environment that have been identified as obesogens. These include chemical pesticides in food and water, particularly atrazine and DDE (a compound that is made from breaking down DDT, which was used in pesticides in the past), certain pharmaceutical drugs such as the diabetes drug Avandia (which works by binding itself to the fat cells to make them more sensitive to the hormone insulin) and some dietary obesogens such as sodium glutamate (a common flavour enhancer in various processed foods). Exposure to these substances has been linked to increased body mass index (BMI) in both humans and animals.

The most popular and known obesogens are the ones that disrupt the endocrine system and they are referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) by the Endocrine Society. The endocrine system is responsible for regulating metabolic processes and balancing energy levels, and fat deposition and distribution in the body. This system is made up of organs and hormones that communicate with each other. However, EDCs such as some of the environmental chemical compounds mentioned above, disrupt the normal function of the endocrine system, which leads to imbalances in the metabolic process. For example, obesogens can directly or indirectly act on cells to increase the level of fat storage in cells, change the basal metabolic rate, and alter the regulation of fullness and hunger. This has been linked to the modification of the “set-point” or the sensitivity to developing obesity in the future. EDCs have also been linked to human health issues such as sperm quality, abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, and certain cancers,

As a result of obesogens working at a cellular level, their impact can start from prenatal development stages or in the womb. Hence, a fetus exposed to obesogenic chemical compounds has a higher chance of gaining weight in the future. For example, from the 1930s to the 1970s, pregnant women were prescribed the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages. However, it was later discovered that children born to these women had adverse health conditions including reproductive tract problems, vaginal cancer in adolescents, and breast cancer in adulthood. In addition, the distribution and size of fat cells were altered. Early-life exposure to obesogens is likely to cause a life-long struggle with weight gain and other health conditions.

The environment that we live in is increasingly being affected by chemical compounds that are not only a threat to the Earth’s ecosystems but also to human health at a cellular level. There is a need for education and awareness of these environmental chemical compounds and knowledge on how to prevent or minimize their impact on our health. Eating organic, filtering water, and reducing plastic usage in daily living are some of the ways to reduce exposure to obesogens. However, although these are good measures, the unfortunate reality is that the level of exposure to obesogens is relative. Black people (46.8%) and Hispanic people (47.0%) are disproportionately exposed, with Black women (54.8%) and Hispanic women (50.6%), being impacted even more. This means that social contexts, environmental inequality, and political contexts all shape the populations affected by obesogens.


Speaking Plainly:

  • Obesity is a global public health concern that is associated with other health issues such as cardiovascular problems, cancers, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic health problems.

  • Chemical compounds found in the environment (obesogens), particularly the ones described as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have been pinpointed as a major concern in the spike of obesity and the predisposition to weight gain.

  • The effects of EDCs at the cellular level can start as early as at the prenatal developmental stage in the womb.

  • Environmental inequalities, social factors, and political contexts all shape the populations that are likely to be affected by obesogens and their likelihood of being predisposed to weight gain in the future.