A flame-retardant chemical, commonly found on household items, may cause metabolic problems that lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This is according to new research from the University of New Hampshire.
The chemical, known as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), is found in items such as sofas, carpet, and electronics. It may be responsible for metabolic issues that cause obesity. In turn, this increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and some forms of cancer.
The obesity study
The study was conducted by exposing rats to PBDEs. The researchers noticed the chemical disrupted the rats’ metabolisms, leading to obesity and liver enlargement.
Moreover, it changed the behaviour of their hormones. When the fat cells were affected by lots of flame retardants, the hormones behaved in the same way as the hormones of obese people: insulin sensitivity decreased, while epinephrine sensitivity increased.
The researchers are unsure as to why PBDE causes insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, but it could be due to the suppression of a certain metabolic enzyme known as PEPCK. Levels of PEPCK halved in the livers of the rats, after just one month of PBDE exposure.
A factor in the obesity, type 2 epidemic?
Gale Carey, Professor of Nutrition and leader of the study, said: “Being obese or overweight increases one’s risk of many diseases including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease stroke, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and certain cancers.
“Despite the plethora of resources devoted to understanding the roles of diet and exercise in the obesity epidemic, this epidemic continues to escalate, suggested that other environmental factors may be involved.
“At the biochemical level there is a growing body of experimental evidence suggesting certain environmental chemicals, or ‘obesogens’, could disrupt the body’s metabolism and contribute the obesity epidemic.”
The research supports other recent studies, which have indicated that the development of obesity may involve factors other than diet. Genetics and environmental factors could both have a part to play.
“One of the hallmarks of somebody who is becoming diabetic – and often this accompanies weight gain – is that their fat cells become sluggish in their response to insulin. With epinephrine, the fat cells more easily release the fatty acids into the blood stream and if those fatty acids are not used, they promote insulin resistance.”

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