Newly released research by University of New Hampshire scientists linked common flame retardant chemicals to obesity and liver problems in laboratory rats, along with cell behavior that reflected diabetic tendencies.
UNH researchers found that rats exposed to high levels of those chemicals daily for one month had fat cells that became more sensitive to epinephrine and less sensitive to insulin. Gale Carey, a UNH nutrition professor and leader of the research team, said that pattern mirrors cells in overweight people and in those developing diabetes.
Carey speculated that exposure to the flame retardants suppressed phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, a metabolic enzyme in the liver that helps regulate fatty acids. Without normal levels of the enzyme, fatty acids build up in the liver and blood, resulting in metabolic obesity and enlarged livers in exposed rats.
The research involved polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are synthetic flame retardants found in couches, carpet padding, electronics and other common household items.
Carey said the continued escalation of obesity in the U.S. suggests "other environmental factors may be involved" aside from diet and exercise.
"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," Carey said.
The research will be presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference, which begins late next month in Boston.