April 7, 2009

Rise in Toddler Obesity Points to Genetic Damage from Pollutants

There has been a huge increase in obesity among toddlers and young children. No one disputes this, especially not me.

But what is disturbing is that the blame for this phenomenon has been placed on the children's parents not where it belongs: on the industrial polluters who have filled our air, water, and food supply with chemicals that we know disrupt the genes of developing fetuses.

Pregnant women drink tap water that contains detectable amounts of SSRI antidepressants, which are well known to cause endocrine disruptions leading to obesity. They eat food from cans lined in bisphenol A, known to cause obesity in animals exposed to it as fetuses. They breathe air filled with chemical breakdown products from factories. They eat vegetables imported from third world countries grown with endocrine disrupting pesticides.

The poorer you are, the more likely you are to live in a neighborhood contaminated with industrial runoff. Look at this study for just one example of how blood levels of PCBs and pesticides predicted diabetes in an upstate New York population of Native Americans.

When I raised my children in the early 1980s parenting books cited numerous studies that proved quite conclusively that children under 6 with normal metabolisms will not overeat no matter how much food you expose them to. The studies found in case after case that young children who overate at one meal would under eat at another and that over time even if allowed to eat whenever they wanted and whatever they chose from a wide selection of foods including desserts, their nutritional intake stayed surprisingly constant and surprisingly well balanced.

But as so many of us with diabetes have learned, when metabolic regulatory systems are not working properly, one of the first symptoms is abnormal appetite. And this kind of metabolic dysregulation, apparently from birth onward, is exactly which is what we are seeing in the 20% of four year old children found to be obese. It is also why were are seeing an increasing number of young children being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes before age 6 though we know that it takes a decade or more for adults to develop the kind of diabetes associated with obesity. These children are not getting diabetes because they are making poor choices. They are developing diabetes (and the obesity that comes along with the rampant hunger associated with metabolic failure) because they are being born with genetic damage.

It's time to start being honest about what is going on in these children that has dysregulated their metabolisms. There are thousands of studies already in print linking maternal exposure to air pollution with negative outcomes in newborns, such as low birth weight (which in turn has been linked with a higher risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes later on.

Just this week the public learned of a two year old study that found perchlorate--rocket fuel--in water supplies all over the country and, more importantly, in the blood of all 3,000 people tested for it. Perchlorate is known to damage the thyroid and cause brain abnormalities in children and it appears to be getting into our bodies even if we don't live near chemical plants via vegetables and fruits grown in regions where the ground water supply has been contaminated with it. The EPA has fought against doing anything about this problem, even after it was identified, because the rocket fuel was put into our environment by huge, powerful, politically connected corporations.

Still, there are encouraging signs that now that the EPA is no longer a wholly owned subsidiary of the chemical companies this may change. Besides the recent hearings about rocket fuel in our water, new EPA studies are also looking at some of the worst environments like Schools down wind of factories. NIH is funding The National Children's Study a huge long term study underway now that will measure air and water exposure of a large number of 100,000 children from birth onward.

But the fact is we don't need more studies, and we certainly don't have time to wait for those 100,000 recently conceived children to grow into adults to confirm that their exposure to environmental toxins, from birth, will disturb or destroy their metabolisms. There have been thousands of studies conducted already linking air, water, and food pollution to metabolic problems in children and adults. There are whole journals devoted to research on pollution and its effects on living things ranging from microbes to babies.

What we really need is for the media to start telling the public the truth--that the so-called "obesity epidemic" is a symptom of the widespread, decades long pollution of our environment by biologically active organic compounds that are disrupting the metabolisms of adults and damaging the bodies of our babies while they are still in the womb. And we must face the fact that some of this genetic damage may not be fully reversible.

It will take billions or even trillions to halt the damage. We'll need to develop water treatment plants capable of removing pharmaceuticals from our water supply. These drugs are getting into it in the first place because everyone who takes a pill excretes significant amounts of the pharamceuticals it contains into our sewer system or ground water and current water treatment strategies are unable to remove these organic pharmaceutical molecules from the treated water.

We'll need to get aggressive about eliminating dangerous smokestack emissions. We'll need to investigate the plastics that surround us and ban those, like bisphenol A which are being found in our blood streams in detectible amounts. We'll need to find alternative ways of protecting crops that don't depend on the pesticides that kill insects fast and people slowly.

And most importantly, we'll have to realize that this is a problem that transcends national borders. The pollutants that go into the air in China or India are carried around the world and will eventually fill the air and water all of us breathe. The peppers grown in South America ends up on tables in Vermont.

If we don't do what we need to do, the problem will in fact go away on its own, along with the human and animal population of the earth: because when genetic damage reaches a certain point human (and animal) fertility will begin to drop at the same time as the rate of disturbing mutations will rise. There are suggestions this is already happening. Infertility and the need for assisted reproduction has become a much bigger issue over the past 50 years while the horrifying rise in the rate of autism over the past 20 years hints of the kinds of pregnancy outcomes we may all have to deal with if the current pace of planetary pollution continues.

These obese toddlers are just the canaries in the coal mine, poor little things. But it is time to stop blaming their parents--most likely to be those living in poverty so that they are more exposed to pesticides (if they are agricultural workers) or smokestack and factory water discharges, since there is a strong poverty-incidence connection in childhood obesity. Blame instead those who have profited mightily from hiding the truth about pollution from us and blaming the victims for what is becoming clearer every day is an "epidemic" of environmentally caused genetic damage.


Anne said...

You mention the rocket fuel found in the water. I remember a few years ago there was something about rocket fuel in lettuce and milk. I have not heard anymore about that recently. I am sure it did not disappear. http://www.organicconsumers.org/foodsafety/lettuce120104.cfm

What is in our environment is scarey.

Trinkwasser said...

Time to dig out some of my old books and magazines from the sixties and seventies. Including John Brunner's novels Stand On Zanzibar and especially The Sheep Look Up


Us old hippies knew this stuff was occurring way back then. Just because it has been swept under the carpet in recent years doesn't mean it went away.

Personally I suspect a multiple whammy from all directions including toxic excesses of carbs, lack of micronutrients and bombardment with noxious substances all playing a part.

Anonymous said...

John Brunner! Oh, man, the best!

"If you want to go faster, slow down."
John Brunner
Shockwave Rider, 1975