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Environment and Obesity: Looking for Links

EPA scientists are investigating the link between chemical exposure in the womb and the development of metabolic ailments such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes down the road.

Person standing on a scale

“Now we work.” That was First Lady Michelle Obama’s reaction to her famous husband’s declaration that he had just signed an executive memorandum establishing a task force on childhood obesity.

The new task force will tackle a growing health epidemic. Nearly one third of children in America are overweight. Far too many of these kids face a future sure to include what scientists and health officials refer to as “metabolic syndrome:” obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance or diabetes, and high LDL cholesterol – all risk factors for later heart disease. Such obesity-related problems swallow some $150 billion in yearly healthcare spending.

President Obama’s goal is to solve the problem of childhood obesity within one generation.

To meet that goal, the task force is first attacking what is widely known to be the major causes of obesity, the double whammy of high-calorie, high-fat diets coupled with the sedentary lifestyles of many of today’s kids.

While that will go a long way, a growing body of scientific evidence now suggests that there may be an additional culprit: early exposure to environmental chemicals. EPA researchers are working to better understand how fetal exposure to certain compounds can trigger the development of metabolic diseases down the road.

“It’s kind of a new biology, we are looking at how the prenatal environment might change the expression of our genes, and how that might affect health and disease risk for the rest of our lives,” says EPA toxicologist John M. Rogers, the Acting Director of Toxicity Assessment at the Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory.

It has been known for some time that poor maternal nutrition and low birthweight have strong correlations with future health problems such as obesity and coronary disease, explains Rogers. He and his EPA colleagues are looking at how prenatal exposure to certain chemicals can have similar long-term health effects.

So far, their experiments have yielded some important insights.  “What we are finding is that offspring of rats that have been exposed to certain chemicals during pregnancy consistently show elevated blood pressure as adults,” says Rogers. Some rats also exhibit an elevated insulin response, another health condition under the metabolic syndrome umbrella.

Building on those findings is the next step. Rogers’ lab is continuing its work by looking for more ways to explore how early exposure to different chemicals might lead to changes in adult physiology.

What Rogers and his colleagues learn will provide important science for efforts, such as the First Lady’s initiative, to end childhood obesity by the time today’s kids are ready to become parents themselves.

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