It’s a growing epidemic—and the numbers are looking worse for the future. Over 80 percent of Americans are considered either overweight or obese by the Center for Disease Control. Yet a groundbreaking conference hosted at Colby Oct. 14 suggests there’s more to it than just diet and exercise. A new culprit contributing to this growing health concern: exposure to industrial chemicals, participating scientists say.

The day-long conference, “Chemicals, Obesity and Diabetes: How Science Leads Us to Action,” had more than 160 participants, including students, faculty, and visiting speakers considered experts in this dynamic field of environmental health.
 
The conference emphasized that caloric intake and physical activity are only two of many complex factors that ultimately put individuals at risk for obesity, and researchers are looking for other factors. “Understanding cellular targets help us understand how weight and metabolism are regulated,” said Gail Carlson, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies.
 
“We’re talking about industrial chemicals, many of which get out into the environment, and it’s important to remember that people are a part of the environment,” said Carlson, one the organizers of the conference.
 
Recent advances in developmental biology and a better understanding of human development have helped researchers argue that chemicals they call “obesogens” can be an important factor in contributing to fat-related health conditions.
 
“Obesogens stimulate the development of fat cells or the storage [capacity] of new cells,” said keynote speaker Bruce Blumberg, a developmental and cell biology researcher from University of California-Irvine. “They lead to permanent effects, and we need … to intervene early.” Blumberg’s provocative presentation noted that such chemicals could affect the longevity of future generations and that the impact of obesity can easily transcend an individual to ultimately affect his or her offspring.
 
Fat tissues are actively involved with the production of hormones, and researchers have shown that exposure to industrial chemicals that mimic certain hormones can change the architecture of fat cells. This can lead to changes in one’s metabolism and may ultimately lead to obesity.
 
Some of the conference discussions noted that these obesogens can begin to adversely affect a fetus’s development in the womb, potentially setting an individual on a path toward obesity even before birth. Therefore, “It isn’t just about personal choices,” Carlson said, “… there could be prenatal exposure,” and that exposure could increase the risk.
 
The biological research discussed at the conference was balanced with an emphasis on policy considerations. Participants were eager to broaden the conversation to include prevention. Participants said that Maine is one of the more progressive states in terms of regulating harmful substances with public policy, so it was fitting that the College was host to a summit to explore obesity in America and around the world.
 
The conference was sponsored by the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, Colby’s Environmental Studies Program, and several state and regional medical institutions.