Plastic could play a key role in the global obesity epidemic

More and more scientists tend to consider that the environment can have a major impact on obesity.

More and more scientists tend to consider that the environment can have a major impact on obesity.

©PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

science and health

More and more scientific studies tend to show that the environment can have a major impact on obesity, due to chemicals.

Atlantico: More and more scientists tend to consider that the environment can have a major impact on obesity, especially due to chemicals sometimes called “obesogens”. In your study”Adipogenic Activity of Chemicals Used in Plastic Consumer Products“, you tried to identify them. What are these chemicals?

Martin Wagner : We know that a high-calorie diet and a lack of physical exercise are not the only factors contributing to the obesity pandemic. In our work, we show that everyday plastic products contain obesogens, chemicals that trigger cells to transform into fat cells that then store more fat. We have found that plastic products contain hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals, including some well-known obesogens, including flame retardants and phthalate plasticizers. But we also find that these substances cause only part of the effects. Therefore, the plastics must contain other obesogens that we have not yet identified.

What are the main sources of these components? How is plastic affected?

The main sources through which we are exposed to obesogens are food and inhalation. Food contamination comes from agricultural production, packaging and food processing. Air contamination comes from flame retardants and other chemicals that accumulate in household dust. We now know that plastic products also contain these chemicals. We can therefore be exposed through food packaging and the handling of plastic items, for example when children play with plastic toys.

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How do they enter the body and promote obesity?

We know that chemical substances do not stay in the plastic product. They are mobile and can seep into food, pass on our skin or volatilize into the air. However, for the obesogenic substances contained in the plastic, we do not yet know exactly how this happens.

To what extent can these chemicals explain the current obesity pandemic?

This is a very difficult question because obesity has many causes. To my knowledge, science has not yet quantified the contribution of chemicals. Nevertheless, we need to better include them in our research and obesity prevention measures.

Are we underestimating this environmental source of obesity? Are things changing?

Yes, things are changing. Public perception and health policies still focus on diet and exercise as the primary causes of obesity. While these are important, we need to raise awareness that exposure to chemicals also plays a role. Unlike lifestyle choices, there is not much the individual can do – so policy measures are needed.

To what extent do we need to redefine the way we test the toxicity of chemicals?

I think chemicals should be tested to see if they contribute to obesity, like endocrine disruptors. It’s not done in a systematic way, so we don’t know if the chemicals we use every day are obesogenic or not. This needs to be changed by including obesogenic effects in the safety assessment of chemicals.

Is there anything else that can be done to remedy this situation?

My best advice is to reduce your own plastic footprint. It’s good for the environment and will reduce your contact with plastic chemicals.

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