Which chemicals are making us fat?


Researchers increasingly refer to chemicals that can promote weight gain as obesogens

In her book 'The 21st Century is Making you Fat' former Ecologist Editor Pat Thomas details the full range of industrial and everyday chemicals known to encourage us to get fat

Include the pesticides DDT, chlordane, aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor and the now banned industrial lubricants PCBs, as well as dioxins and chlorophenols. High levels of organochlorines have been found to alter metabolism in the body and essentially stop us losing fat.

Organophosphate pesticides, such as malathion, dursban, diazinon and carbonates, constitute 40 per cent of all pesticides used. These chemicals are mainly utilised inside buildings, as opposed to in agriculture. They are neurotoxic (harmful to nerve tissue) and hormone-disrupting.


Including aldicarb, bendiocarb, carbaryl, propoxur and thiophanate methyl, carbamates are used extensively in agriculture, forestry and gardening. They are suspected hormone-disrupters.


These include tributyltin (TBT) and the mono- and dibutyltins (MBT, DBT). These chemicals have many applications, including as stabilizers in PVC, catalysts in chemical reactions. They are also found in glass coatings, agricultural pesticides, biocides in marine anti-foulant paints and wood treatments and preservatives. Organotins are damaging to the thyroid and immune system and potential hormone-disrupters.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)
An oestrogen mimic used to make clear, hard, reusable plastic products; it is also used in the manufacture of polymers, fungicides, antioxidants, dyes, polyester resins, flame-retardants and rubber chemicals, and some dental resins.

Hormone-disrupting chemicals, these are produced in large volumes and are commonly detected in ground water, rivers and drinking water, as well as in meat and dairy products. Around 95 per cent of phthalate production over the last few decades has been tied to the PVC industry. Phthalates can be found in many plastics and consumer products – everything from hair spray and nail varnish to plastic water bottles and T-shirts.

Polybrominated flame-retardants

These are added to many products, including computers, TVs and household textiles to reduce fire risk. They are also found in baby mattresses, foam mattresses, car seats and PVC products. Office workers who use computers, hospital cleaners and workers in electronics-dismantling plants are at particular risk from these chemicals. Polybrominated flame-retardants are oestrogen mimics and can also affect the thyroid.


A common food pollutant that belongs to a family of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It is derived from coal tar and enters the atmosphere as a result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. In animals it has been shown to cause weight gain in the absence of any detectable change in food intake. It is possible that other PAHs may have a similar effect.

Neurotoxic chemicals that include xylene, dichlorobenzene, ethylphenol, styrene, toluene, acetone and trichloroethane are commonly found in human blood samples. They are necessary for a wide range of industrial processes and are found widely in adhesives, glues, cleaning fluids, felt-tip pens, perfumes, paints, varnishes, pesticides, petrol, household cleaners and waxes.

This is principally used as a protective plating for steel, in electrode material in nickel-cadmium batteries and as a component of various alloys. It is also present in phosphate fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides. Cadmium in the soil is taken up through the roots of plants and distributed to edible leaves, fruits and seeds, and is eventually passed on to humans and other animals, where it can build up in milk and fatty tissues. Cadmium is neurotoxic and a potential hormone-disrupter.

Professions that put their employees at risk of exposure to this neurotoxin include lead-smelting, -refining and -manufacturing industries, brass/bronze foundries, the rubber and plastics industries, steel-welding and -cutting operations, and battery manufacturing plants. Construction workers and people who work in municipal waste incinerators, in the pottery and ceramics industries, radiator-repair shops and other industries that use lead solder may also be among high-exposure groups.

This is an extract from 'The 21st Century is Making You Fat' by Pat Thomas

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