Larger Breast Size, Obesity and Diabetes Tied to Estrogen-Mimicking Pollutants

Women's breasts are larger than they used to be. For a while I thought it was just a change among younger women. But then it became clear to me that the same phenomenon had emerged in women of more mature ages. My weekly trip to surf a nude beach north of San Francisco clinched it.

A quick run around the Internet confirmed what my eyes were telling me. According to Britain's The Daily Mirror, no stranger to alluring photos of fetchingly undraped lassies, the average bra size in the UK is now 36C, up from 34B ten years ago. And the paper reports Marks & Spencer will stock J-cup bras for the first time. Formerly the largest cup size was a G. Similar figures are found in the United States. The average bra size has gone from 36C to 36DD over the past five years.

I realize some of the increase in breast size is intentional. Cosmetic implants are ever more popular. The contraceptive pill has been linked to increasing breast size. And larger breasts may simply be the result of the simple fact that people are eating more food and more fattening food and so carrying more overall weight than they have historically.

So why is a writer/ocean conservationist who specializes in marine mammals and ocean toxicity turning his attention to bra sizes? I'm a man and hard wired to notice such things but that's not why I'm writing about this.

The answer lies in my studies of the relationship between the super feminization of women (and feminization of men) and consumption of foods that contain estrogen-imitating chemicals. Classes of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) mimic the effects of estrogen in the mammalian body. Some of these POPs are familiar to many -- PCBs and PBDEs, flame retardants and coolants in transformers, electric motors, computers, even baby clothing. Another, still persistent in the environment after 35 years off the U.S. and European markets, is DDT and its metabolite DDE. The more you eat of foods containing these and similar chemicals, the more of the estrogen imitating compounds are ingested, significantly altering the body's hormonal balance. POPs are lipophilic; that is to say, attracted to fat. These chemicals, that arrive via the wind and waters are stored in the fat of animals and fish.
My area of concentration has been with this phenomenon in the marine environment. POPs are bio-magnified up the food chain so that someone eating a large fish will ingest far more contamination that when eating smaller fish. The tests BlueVoice and others have done on dolphins, feeding at the apex of the oceanic food chain, show high levels of POPs in their tissues virtually worldwide with variation depending on size of prey fish and location.

The larger breast phenomenon is only the tip of this chemical iceberg. Serious illness and disruption of mammalian immune systems are additional byproducts of these chemicals. Obesity and diabetes have been directly connected to them as well. Recent studies on animals (tests I almost always oppose) show evidence of a link between POP exposure and insulin resistance syndrome, metabolic disorders that include type 2 diabetes (EHP 118:465-471; Ruzzin et al.) A highly alarming correlate is that obese and diabetic individuals have a far higher risk of getting cancer than people with lean physiques. A critical factor is that POPs are absorbed in fatty tissues. Ironically when obese persons lose weight they flood their blood and tissues with the POPs previously bound in fat. This is especially dangerous on a crash diet.

I was diagnosed in 2003 with multiple myeloma, a disease that has been linked to high levels of toxins. In 2005 I had myself tested for POPs and the levels were, in some cases, extremely high. The reason for my accumulation of these chemicals appears to be that during the late 1990s I ate large quantities of tuna and swordfish as well as other fish. In 1997 I had been diagnosed with chronic mercury poisoning. Again, best guess is the culprit was large predatory fish. The mercury levels came down within six-months of taking large fish off the menu. The POPs have half-lives of eight to 15 years and take decades to fully clear.

Today, through in collaboration with Elsa Nature Conservancy in Japan, I test dolphin meat for chemical pollutants. We virtually always find high levels of both POPs and heavy metals such as mercury. We publish these results both to educate human consumers of fish and to argue that eating dolphin meat, with the high contaminant levels, is a health hazard. We hope this will drive down demand for dolphin meat in Japan and worldwide.

It is not only the females of species that are affected. In mammals as diverse as alligators, polar bears and human beings high levels of estrogen imitating POPs correlate with decreased sperm counts, reduced volume and quality of semen, depressed levels of the male hormone testosterone, and high levels of estrogens in both males and females. Reproductive failure in mammals including humans has reached alarming levels.

The impact of these chemicals does not stop with the immediate consumer. Women who inadvertently include PCBs in their diet pass them to their children in fat rich breast milk. The role of environmental chemicals in obesity is emerging from the realm of speculation to hard science. And more studies are in the works. The Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Strategic Plan recently acknowledged the problem. In 2011 the NIH launched a three-year effort to fund research exploring the role of environmental chemical exposures in obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and metabolic disorders.

These studies and action to reverse the conversion of the world's waterways into chemical soups cannot come too soon. In the meantime there are steps you can take: choose fish that are no larger than an average dinner plate and trim away fat. Avoid farm-raised fish. They contain high levels of POPs. Choose lean cuts of meat and trim fat. Do not cook with lard or by frying.