Commonly-Used Pesticide Could Be Partly Responsible For Obesity Crisis: Study

HAMILTON, Ontario — An increased calorie intake or eating in larger quantities are the probable answers when considering the cause of obesity.

However, research has found that it may also come down to whether one buys indigenously or locally grown food or picks imported vegetables at the store so long as the latter has been sprayed with a commonly-used pesticide that undermines metabolism.

The study led by McMaster University scientists has found that chlorpyrifos could be partially responsible for the global obesity crisis.

The findings of the study were published in the journal “Nature Communications.” The Canadian Institutes of Health Research provided external funding for the study. 

Researchers discovered that chlorpyrifos—which is banned for use on foods in Canada but widely sprayed on fruits and vegetables in many other parts of the world—slows down the burning of calories in the brown adipose tissue of mice.

Reducing this burning of calories—a process known as diet-induced thermogenesis—causes the body to store these extra calories, promoting obesity.

Scientists made the discovery after studying 34 commonly used pesticides and herbicides in brown fat cells and testing the effects of chlorpyrifos in mice fed high-calorie diets.

“Brown fat is the metabolic furnace in our body, burning calories, unlike normal fat that is used to store them,” said Gregory Steinberg, senior author of the study, professor of medicine, and co-director of the Centre for Metabolism, Obesity, and Diabetes Research at McMaster University in Ontario.

“This generates heat and prevents calories from being deposited on our bodies as normal white fat. We know brown fat is activated during cold and when we eat.

“Lifestyle changes around diet and exercise rarely lead to sustained weight loss. We think part of the problem may be this intrinsic dialing back of the metabolic furnace by chlorpyrifos.”

Chlorpyrifos would only need to inhibit energy use in brown fat by 40 calories every day to trigger obesity in adults, according to Steinberg, which would translate to an extra five pounds of weight gain per year.

He said that while several environmental toxins, including chlorpyrifos, have been linked to rising obesity rates in both humans and animals, most of these studies have attributed the weight gain to increases in food intake and not the burning of calories.

“Although the findings (of this study) have yet to be confirmed in humans, an important consideration is that whenever possible (it is recommended to) consume fruits and vegetables from local Canadian sources and if consuming imported produce, make sure it is thoroughly washed,” Steinberg said.

While the use of chlorpyrifos on foods is banned in Canada, imported produce may still be treated with it.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it would ban the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops based on new evidence that links it to neurodevelopmental harms in children. The decision to disallow had been a long time coming as the first ban was effected in 2015, citing uncertainty about the impact of the pesticide on human health due to exposure to food and water.

The US government later reversed the ban due to the same lack of evidence. 

In early 2020, based on the findings of three new papers in 2017 and 2018 that chlorpyrifos was actually linked to developmental harm, the Environmental Protection Agency changed the national position on the pesticide and prohibited the sale and usage of chlorpyrifos.

(With inputs from ANI)

Edited by Amrita Das and Krishna Kakani

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