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Updated by Environmental Illness Network Minnesota on Feb 18, 2017
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Environmental Exposures & Obesity

The National Institute of Environmental Health Science posted that "there is mounting evidence that environmental exposures and man made surroundings can influence obesity and related conditions." Environmental SUSPECTS about which concerns have been raised about possible links to obesity are listed here. Further research is needed about some of these suspects. Environmental Illness Network Minnesota doesn't guarantee the accuracy, nor necessarily agree with all, of the information from the linked sources.

Air Pollution from Coal Tar Sealed Driveways and Parking Lots

In the above linked article, Rodale News reports: "pregnant moms with high exposures to air pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs... were more likely to have children who are obese by age 7 than moms with lower exposure sources." And "If you live outside of a heavily polluted urban area, you're more likely to be exposed to these chemicals from driveways and parking lots than dirty air, thanks to a certain type of asphalt sealant used to repair driveways and prolong the life of the asphalt in parking lots. Used primarily in the central and eastern U.S., these sealants are made with carcinogenic coal tar, a by-product of coal mining and steel manufacturing that contains 16 (also carcinogenic) PAH compounds at levels 1,300 times higher than other less-toxic driveway sealants."

Air Pollution from the Burning of Coal, Diesel, Oil, Gas and Tobacco

The linked article explains that "The burning of coal, diesel, oil and gas - as well as other substances, such as tobacco - produce chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)." The article reports about a study in which "Children of women exposed to high levels of PAH during pregnancy were nearly twice as likely (1.79 times) to be obese at age five, and more than twice as likely (2.26 times) to be obese at age seven, compared with children of mothers with lower levels of exposure. The seven-year-olds whose mothers were in the highest exposure group had, on average, 2.4lb more fat mass than children of mothers with the least exposure."


In the above linked article, Rodale News reports about a study in which: "Antibiotic use in the youngest age group resulted in a 22 percent higher risk of being overweight when the children turned 3 years old." The article also notes that "conventional farmers have known antibiotics have the ability to fatten things up for quite some time" and that much of the meat Americans eat comes from livestock that was given antibiotics. Other articles on the subject of weight gain and antibiotics can be found here: and here:

Artificial Light

The above linked Washington Post article asks whether artificial lighting contributes to the obesity crisis by altering our circadian rhythms. Mother Jones reported on the possible connection as well here:

Artificial Sweeteners (Saccharin and Aspartame)

The above linked study is entitled: "Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels." And ScienceDaily reported: "studies in humans have shown that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages is also associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome as well as cardiovascular disease. As few as one of these drinks per day is enough to significantly increase the risk for health problems." Check out the study "Oral stimulation with aspartame increases hunger." Another study found that "intense sweeteners can produce significant changes in appetite. Of the intense sweeteners, aspartame gave rise to the most pronounced effects." Sharon Fowler MPH reported with respect to another study "“On average, for each diet soft drink our participants drank per day, they were 65 percent more likely to become overweight during the next seven to eight years, and 41 percent more likely to become obese."

Atrazine (herbicide that is so widely used in the US that it can often be found in air and water)

The above linked study explains that because "There is an apparent overlap between areas in the USA where the herbicide, atrazine (ATZ), is heavily used and obesity-prevalence maps of people with a BMI over 30" the authors studied the connection. They found "that long-term exposure to the herbicide ATZ might contribute to the development of insulin resistance and obesity, particularly where a high-fat diet is prevalent."

Baby Formula

Futurity reported: "Formula-fed infants experience metabolic stress that could put them at a greater risk than breast-fed babies to a wide range of health issues."


Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A (BPA)

According to the linked Environmental Health News article: "White children exposed to high levels of bisphenol A are five times more likely to be obese than children with low levels, according to a study published... in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The research is the first to link the chemical to obesity in children; previous studies reported links in adults and animals... Traces of BPA – used in some canned food and beverages, paper receipts and dental sealants – are found in virtually every U.S. adult and child." A different study about BPA and obesity from the Harvard School of Public Health can be found here: Another study found BPA mixed with other chemicals led to "transgenerational obesity." And this links to the Chemical Watch article "Researchers link urinary BPA and childhood obesity": And here's an article about another study linking BPA to obesity: BPA is featured in this Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report about chemicals and obesity: Other sources linking BPA and obesity include: and

Bisphenol A Diglycidyl Ether (BADGE)

In the above linked article, Rodale News reports: "Bisphenol A diglycidyl ether, otherwise known as BADGE, is found in canned food liners, as is bisphenol A, or BPA, another controversial chemical... A new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives discovered that extremely low levels of BADGE promote weight gain in a creepy, sci-fi kind of way." A different study found that the obesity-linked BADGE may have “widespread occurrence” in human urine samples:

Childhood Environmental Exposures: video from the NIEHS: "Childhood Obesity and the Environment Virtual Forum"

This video of a childhood obesity forum at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences helps shed some light on the growing level of concern among scientists and public health experts about the role childhood environmental exposures might be playing in the obesity epidemic. Among other things, the experts discuss the need for more research.


ScienceDaily reports: "People who participate in community gardening have a significantly lower body mass index -- as well as lower odds of being overweight or obese -- than do their non-gardening neighbors." The study doesn't indicate whether this is because vegetable gardeners are likely to be eating more real food and less processed foods, or whether it is because gardening my be beneficial for gut bacteria:

Electromagnetic Fields (From Sources Like WiFi and Cell Phone Towers)

According to the above linked article: "In-utero exposure to relatively high magnetic field levels was associated with a 69 percent increased risk of being obese or overweight during childhood compared to lower in-utero magnetic field levels, according to a Kaiser Permanente study that appears in the current online version of Nature's Scientific Reports." And Natural News reported: "Obesity epidemic caused by EMF exposures in the home according to startling new research."

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

This links to Nicholas Kristof's article about endocrine disrupting chemicals and obesity, "Warnings From a Flabby Mouse." He explains, " These chemicals are largely unregulated — they are in food, couches, machine receipts and shampoos — and a raft of new studies suggest that they can lead to the formation of more and larger fat cells." And this O EcoTextiles post asks if, because of endocrine disrupting chemicals: "Can your fabric choices make you fat?"

Exposures that Disrupt Sleep

The above linked study concludes: "Increasing sleep among adolescents, especially those in the upper half of the BMI distribution, may help prevent overweight and obesity." And ScienceDaily reported: "Well-rested teenagers tend to make more healthful food choices than their sleep-deprived peers, according to a study led by Lauren Hale, PhD, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The finding, presented at SLEEP 2013, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, may be key to understanding the link between sleep and obesity." UC Berkley reported "Sleep deprivation linked to junk food cravings."

Farmed Salmon Containing Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

The above linked study concludes: "Our data indicate that intake of farmed salmon fillet contributes to several metabolic disorders linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity, and suggest a role of POPs in these deleterious effects."

Fast Food

ScienceDaily reports: "The conclusions, published in the journal Critical Public Health (De Vogli, Kouvonen & Gimeno, 2011), are clear: the density of Subway's outlets is positively associated with the prevalence of obesity across 26 advanced economies in both men and women. Even after adjusting for the other factors, countries with the highest density of Subway restaurants (such as the United States and Canada) have a higher prevalence of obesity than countries with a low density (like Norway and Japan)." Another study "found that significantly fewer people became obese when living in neighborhoods with healthier food environments" with better access to healthier foods.

Fat Substitutes (like Olestra)

The above link goes to a PDF for the study: "Fat Substitutes Promote Weight Gain in Rats Consuming High-Fat Diets." You can read an article explaining the study here:


Flame Retardants

Flame Retardants

"According to the linked ScienceDaily article: "The flame-retardant mixture known as 'Firemaster 550' is an endocrine disruptor that causes extreme weight gain, early onset of puberty and cardiovascular health effects in lab animals, according to a ... study spearheaded by researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University." The flame retardant "is used in polyurethane foam in a wide variety of products, ranging from mattresses to infant nursing pillows." And PBDE flame retardants are featured in this Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy report about chemicals and obesity:


The above linked study is about Triflumizole (TFZ), an "imidazole fungicide used on many food and ornamental crops." The study concludes that "TFZ acts through a PPARγ-dependent mechanism to induce adipogenic differentiation in MSCs and in preadipocytes at low nM concentrations. Prenatal TFZ exposure increases adipose depot weight and diverts MSC fate toward the adipocyte lineage; therefore, we conclude that TFZ is an obesogen, in vivo." Another study found similar results with tributyltin (TBT), a fungicide used on carpets and paints:

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Food (and GMO Pesticides Polluting Food, Air, & Water)

The above linked ScienceNordic article reports that "Rats being fed genetically modified food eat more and grow fatter than those on a non-GM diet." Another article about the same study points out that GMO ingredients are now in 80-95% of processed foods in the US. They were introduced into the US food supply in 1996. You can read more about a possible connection here: Another study linked the GMO pesticide glyphosate to obesity: (the study also says that glyphosate residues often linger on GMO foods). The study notes: "The obesity epidemic began in the United States in 1975, simultaneous with the introduction of glyphosate into the food chain, and it has steadily escalated in step with increased usage of glyphosate in agriculture."

Grilling-Created Chemicals

According to the above-linked Futurity article: "The chemicals that make a grilled steak taste so good could add inches to your waistline and may be linked to cardiovascular and other diseases."

Gut Bacteria

According to the above linked ScienceDaily article: "Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have identified 26 species of bacteria in the human gut microbiota that appear to be linked to obesity and related metabolic complications." And Mother Nature Network reports on the link between gut bacteria and obesity here: ScienceDaily reported: "Why Smokers Gain Weight When They Quit Smoking: Changes in Intestinal Flora." Environmental Health Perspectives reported on the importance of the microbiome here:

Having to Eat School Lunches That Merely Meet USDA Standards

ScienceDaily reports: "A study suggests that states with stricter school meal nutrition standards were associated with better weight status among students who received free or reduced-price lunches compared with students who did not eat school lunches." Another study found a connection between eating school lunches and obesity as well:

High Carbohydrate / High Glycemic Diet

The above linked Futurity article reports: "A diet rich in carbs early in life can cause weight gain later, according to a new study that suggests babies may be less prone to obesity if given solid foods later." Also, Food Navigator reported: "Study links eating high-GI carbs to stimulation of addiction center in brain." Forbes reported: "Study: Are Carbs, Sugars Really Like Drugs To Your Brain?"

High Fructose Corn Syrup

The above linked ScienceDaily article reports on a study that provides: "new insights into how fructose consumption results in obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes. In this study which was performed in lab animals, researchers found that fructose can be metabolized by an enzyme that exists in two forms. One form appears to be responsible for causing how fructose causes fatty liver, obesity, and insulin resistance. The other form may actually protect animals from developing these features in response to sugar." Dr. Mercola thinks that government subsidies/policies that encourage farmers to grow (GMO) corn (which ends up in products like high fructose corn syrup) are playing a role in causing the obesity epidemic. He explains his perspective here: You may also want to check out the study "The emerging role of dietary fructose in obesity and cognitive decline."