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Obesity And Environmental Chemicals: Research Probes Potential Link

A team of researchers is investigating whether the increasing ubiquity of chemical flame-retardants might be related to the climbing rate of obesity// in the United States.

“Environmental chemicals are a possible third component to the obesity epidemic, along with diet and exercise,” says Gale Carey, professor of nutrition and a leader of the research project, along with professor of nutrition Anthony Tagliaferro and Deena Small, assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. The trio received funding for the project from the President’s Excellence Initiative Awards, which provide support for interdisciplinary research.

The flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been produced since the 1960s; they’re now found in consumer products like carpeting, upholstered furniture, computers and hair dryers, where they retard the combustibility of these products. It’s estimated that American consumers come into contact with up to 100 products containing PBDEs per day.

While chemical manufacturers say PBDEs can reduce by 45 percent the risk of death and injury by fire, they are an emerging environmental chemical – and an emerging concern, as their impact on the human body becomes documented. Their persistence in the environment has PBDEs compared to now-banned toxins like PCBs and DDT; the use of two types of PBDEs is prohibited in European Union countries.

Carey, Small and Tagliaferro, working in collaboration with clinical assistant professor of animal science Alice Roudabush, D.V.M., and 11 undergraduate and graduate student researchers, are exploring how PBDEs affect fat storage and production. “We know PBDEs are fat-soluble – they dissolve in fat tissue,” says Carey. “What are they doing in the fat as they sit there? Nobody has asked that question yet.”

Building on research conducted by two of Carey’s graduate students, the faculty trio will expose laboratory rats to PBDEs
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