The medical profession remains largely 'oblivious' to the reported links between exposure to chemicals in our daily lives and the development of diabetes and obesity, leading health specialists have told the Ecologist.
Obesity and diabetes rates in children and adults are increasing in many countries across the world. In 2008 almost a quarter of UK adults and 16 per cent of children aged 2-15 were classified as obese, while 2.8 million people are being treated for diabetes. Medical costs associated with these conditions are also rising, with the NHS estimated to be spending £9 billion per year treating diabetes and a further £4.1 billion treating obesity.
The increase in these medical conditions over the last decade has led many researchers to look for a connection with various external factors. Although changes in diet and physical activity are predominantly blamed for these increases, recent research has been exploring the possibility that environmental pollution could cause both diabetes and obesity.
The main suspects highlighted by researchers include persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as chlorinated pesticides, many of which are now banned but continue to be widely detected in the US population. Studies have also found evidence that other chemicals, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), associated with both diabetes and obesity are still widely produced and found at detectable levels in the environment. BPA in particular has been the focus of campaigns calling for it to be banned, although it continues to be used to line plastic bottles and food containers.
Health specialists are adamant there is a connection and say further research is required to explore the complicated relationship.
‘There is no question in my mind that exposure to environmental chemicals is contributing to the increasing rates of diabetes and obesity, but understanding this relationship is absolutely critical’ Dr David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany told the Ecologist. ‘This is especially true for the medical profession, and it is sad that at present the medical profession seems to be oblivious to the role of chemical contamination as risk factors for all of the diseases of older age, from cancer to obesity and diabetes to cardiovascular disease,’ says Dr Carpenter.
The UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) is yet to conduct any research and is taking a more neutral stance.
‘The HPA is not undertaking specific work in this area. However it is an interesting, emerging area of research. As such the HPA looks forward to the publication of future literature and will continue to monitor developments closely,’ says Ovnair Sepai, head of general toxicology at the HPA's Centre for Radiation, Chemicals and Environmental Hazards.
US government concern
However, government health officials in the US have taken a closer interest in the issue. In January 2011 the US Department of Health held a workshop to evaluate research linking exposure to environmental chemicals with the development of diabetes and obesity.
Only last year, the National Cancer Institute, which advises the US President, said the link between exposure to everyday chemicals and cancer risk had been 'grossly underestimated'.
Campaigners in the US now want tougher regulation to stop the use of the chemicals. 'There is growing evidence to support the possibility that lower levels of exposure to environmental chemicals can contribute to the development of diabetes,' says Sarah Howard from the US pressure group Collaborative on Health and the Environment. ‘Some of these chemicals are still in use and we should regulate those chemicals. Regulations could also help identify potentially problematic chemicals before they are introduced into the marketplace, and into our bodies.’
Health groups in the UK remain undecided: 'The link between pollution and diabetes needs to be explored further with more solid research before any accurate conclusions can be made,' says Dr Victoria King, Head of Research at Diabetes UK.
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