Can Oil Spills Make You Fat?

Healthy brown pelicans are pictured along Cat island in Barataria Bay near Myrtle Grove, Louisiana March 31, 2011. BP's well
Healthy brown pelicans are pictured along Cat island in Barataria Bay near Myrtle Grove, Louisiana March 31, 2011. BP's well leaked more than 4 million barrels of oil (168 million gallons/636 million liters) after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 9:53 p.m. CDT on April 20 last year (0253 GMT on April 21), killing 11 workers. One year on, oil from the largest spill in U.S. history clogs wetlands, pollutes the ocean and endangers wildlife, not to mention the toll it has inflicted on the coastal economies of Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and especially Louisiana. Photo taken March 31, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT ENERGY ANNIVERSARY)

A study published by the faculty of Medical University of South Carolina indicates that oil spills and the chemicals used to clean up those spills may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

About six years ago, in April 2010 an explosion in Deepwater Horizon caused the release of over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In response, about 2 million gallons of dispersant was used to emulsify the released oil with the hope of hastening oil biodegradation and preventing the spilled oil from reaching fragile habitats onshore.

Both the oil and the dispersant used to cleanup the spill are implicated as potential endocrine and metabolic disruptors. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can cause developmental and reproductive abnormalities by disrupting hormonal balance. Epidemiological studies link human exposure to EDCs with obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Obesity is a major global health problem that contributes to a variety of diseases, including hypertension and cancer in addition to type 2 diabetes. Historically obesity in individuals was attributed to an imbalance in food eaten versus energy expended. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise and other lifestyle were considered the drivers of the obesity epidemic.

Recent evidence now suggests that certain environmental agents known as "obesogens" may also significantly contribute to obesity, especially in children. Studies using cell cultures and animal models indicate obesogenic compounds appear to alter metabolism and fat cell production.

The study published by the faculty of Medical University of South Carolina found that dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), the principal component of the dispersant used for oil remediation, is a "likely obesogen."

The study should serve as warning. In addition to being used as a dispersant in oil spills, the chemical is also used in many consumer goods, including household cleaning products, deodorants, hair coloring, nail polishes and as a laxative for pregnant women.

That's right. The study suggests that a laxative given to pregnant women may alter the endocrine and metabolic systems of both the mother and her child.

Historic studies of chemicals used in our daily lives, if conducted at all, typically focused on what exposure levels caused cancer. New scientific understanding requires study into the impact of everyday chemicals in altering other human systems, including endocrine and metabolic.

Obesity related diseases are difficult for individuals and their families. The increased rates of obesity is creating major pressure on the US health care system. Understanding the role of chemicals in the growing obesity epidemic will save lives, reduce healthcare costs and improve public health.

Allocating research funds to understand the role of obesogens on human health is an imperative.