Tuesday, 28 October 2008

What is responsible for this pandemic of illness?

Are you overweight? Could do with losing a few pounds? I am. I suffer from the dreaded middle age spread - which has accelerated since I stopped smoking a few years ago. I now find that I am suffering from type II diabetes. Diabetes is a chronic illness, and one that can can have severe consequences - heart disease, blindness, impotence - need I go on?

It is estimated that two million adults in the UK suffer from type II diabetes and there are at least half a million who are undiagnosed.
So what happens next? We are exhorted to lose weight - easier said than done for many people. Overweight people are stigmatised - just like smokers have been. Its your fault fatty!

But is it your fault? Two important pieces of recent scientific research suggest otherwise. They suggest that this pandemic may have been caused by environmental pollution. Firstly, an article published in The Independent on obesity describes research that shows obesity is caused by pesticides. It has long been known that pesticides, even in low concentrations, have potentially harmful effects. Pesticides such as organochlorides - DDT, dieldrin etc - have effects which are oestrogenic - they behave like female hormones and have effects on humans at very low levels. This research is not a one-off. The link between industrial pollutants and obesity was exposed in The Ecologist magazine in November 2006

Secondly, new research suggests that bisphenol A, a chemical commonly found in plastics - such as food packaging - can cause Type II diabetes.

So, could the obesity/type II diabetes pandemic have been caused by environmental pollution? I believe it is highly likely that environmental pollution is a contributory factor, and not just because I find it difficult to lose weight. Its because I have background in molecular biology and an understanding of how these things work.

Yes, its complex. Yes, its difficult to prove cause and effect, especially when these pollutants are present in very low concentrations. But they are present in all of us. We still have DDT in our bodies even though it was banned about thirty years ago. Its much easier just to blame people for being fat, especially when we know that we eat too much, and don't get enough exercise.

But lets not underestimate the fact that the environment we live in is contaminated with chemicals which can have a significant effect on us even at low concentrations. Its important to understand that scientific studies of the effects of such chemicals are flawed. Why? for two main reasons: One - the dose-response studies that scientists use to test toxicity of chemicals are carried out mostly in rats - not humans; Two - at very low concentrations of many chemicals a response cannot be detected - because it cannot be detected it does not mean there is no effect. Nor are long term, or chronic, human effects studied

I intend to lose weight. But I do recognise that the condition I suffer from could be caused by environmental pollution - as well as diet and lifestyle. Why is this post in my blog? Because it is a log about environmental justice - pesticides and plasticisers like bisphenol A are used to make profits. Corporations will defend there use just as they did with DDT until someone can prove that they are harmful.

Obesity and type II diabetes are the pandemics of the current age. What will be the pandemics of the age of GM technology? But then that's safe as well isn't it?


Anonymous said...

Have you considered offering your services to attend Slimmers World. WeightWatchers & Scottish Slimmers meetings asa guest speaker?
You could explain, and maybe give some comfort, to the overweight people there (and they won't all be overweight, some will just think they are!) that the reason they are fat isn't simply because they don't burn off all the calories that they intake but because of the plastic packaging that their food comes in.


Anonymous said...


Sam Blaine

Howard Thorp said...

thank you for your erudite comments

Anonymous said...

I am not a molecular biologist myself; I don't know much in terms of science, but there's defenitely a lot of rubbish in the soil and water now. I remain to be convinced that this is the reason why obesity is on the rise BUT wouldn't rule it out.
When you get chance for a break, why not try a WWOOF trip? Organic farming, good exercise, good heelthy eating.
You'd love it - I have done a few trips now....


Anonymous said...

May be worth a look, as supports your article. Excellent article, thanks!