Professor Gale Carey

Chemicals commonly used as synthetic flame retardants in furniture, carpet padding and electronics have been found to cause metabolic and liver problems that can lead to insulin resistance, a major cause of obesity.

The findings by University of New Hampshire researchers were based on animal studies, with lab rats exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, experiencing a disruption in metabolism resulting in the development of metabolic obesity and enlarged livers.

“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,” Gale Carey, professor of nutrition and study lead researcher said.

“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 to the obesity epidemic.”

In Professor Carey’s research, fat cells isolated from rats dosed with high levels of flame retardants daily for one month developed a sensitivity to hormones similar to the sensitivity experienced by overweight people.

“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,” Professor Carey said.

“Those two features – insulin resistance and epinephrine sensitivity – are two features of fat cells from people who are above normal weight. And that’s what we were seeing in our rats.”

The results of the study will be presented to the Experimental Biology annual meeting in Boston, US in late March.