Carcinogenicity: Oh No! Obesogenicity: Meh.

Northern Lights Over an Abandoned Weather Station in TeriberkaHealth disrupting chemicals are spreading to the farthest reaches of the planet. Even on the remote Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, they’re showing up. Through carcinogenicity or obesogenicity, they can wreak havoc with our health.

But as we follow the public discourse about the bad actors, one thing becomes quite clear. Carcinogenicity prompts alarm and action, while obesogenicity more typically elicits puzzlement or draws a blank stare.

Inescapable Pollution

The health disrupting chemicals receiving  intense scrutiny these days are known as PFAS –  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They are in the air and in the rain that falls on us all over the world, a textbook illustration of ubiquity. It is these chemicals that have reached all the way to the Faroe Islands and alarmed public health scientists there.

As PFAS has begun to enter the bodies of people living in the Faroe Islands, Philippe Grandjean and Pál Weihe are prepared to study the potential obesogenic effects of these chemicals over time on young people there. This natural experiment in the epidemiology will offer learning that may come as PFAS disrupts the health of Faroe youth. Grandjean says:

“Obesity is an epidemic. And we can’t explain it by lack of physical activity or changing habits.”

Overcoming the Big Yawn

Unfortunately, the idea that obesity prevalence may be driven in part by these obesogens does not spark the same concern that carcinogens produce. Perhaps this is because carcinogenicity can be dramatic, while obesogenicity is typically more subtle. Then there is the pervasive bias that obesity is merely a behavioral problem – not a biological one.

But this is changing. New and better therapies for obesity are making it clear to the public that biology is the key driver of obesity, not “willpower.” On top of that, obesity and toxicology experts are recognizing that obesogens deserve greater attention. At a recent workshop of leadership in these fields, agreement on this emerged:

“Based on the robust nature of the data from in vitro and animal models characterizing obesogens, the obesogen hypothesis/model of obesity should receive greater attention from the broader scientific community as a potential contributor to the obesity pandemic.”

So perhaps the time is near when policymakers conclude we should slow the flow of obesity-causing chemicals into the air, water, and food we consume.

Click here for the workshop summary, here and here for further perspective.

Northern Lights Over an Abandoned Weather Station in Teriberka, photograph by Ted.ns (Andrey Belavin), licensed under CC BY 4.0

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August 18, 2023

One Response to “Carcinogenicity: Oh No! Obesogenicity: Meh.”

  1. August 19, 2023 at 8:50 am, David Brown said:

    Are obesity-causing chemicals responsible for this? Excerpt: “The rising incidence of childhood obesity and T2D, high blood pressure, hyperinsulinemia and dyslipidemia are particularly worrisome as these children often mature to be obese adults. This risk of developing obesity and T2D has largely been blamed on the increased consumption of energy dense foods and fat intake, particularly saturated fat, but it is interesting to know that the mean fat intake of the human population has not increased much in the past 50 years. It is true that the vast advancement in technological developments has led to a reduction in physical activity worldwide, but as obesity now involves infants and the populations of developing countries, this obesity pandemic cannot be attributed to this alone. In addition, laboratory and other domesticated animals have also been subject to the increased prevalence of obesity, despite having largely unchanged living conditions for many years.