January 23, 2013 | by Darrin Joy
Parabens, a group of commonly used preservatives, have come under scrutiny in recent years with research linking them to breast cancer. Now scientists have found evidence that these chemicals might be contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Parabens are found in cosmetics, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, toiletries and other consumer products, including food. The compounds help prevent the growth of microbes and keep the products from spoiling.
An international team of researchers, which included City of Hope’s Jeremy Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular pharmacology, found that parabens promoted the development of fat cells in the lab. And because the researchers used concentrations of parabens similar to those found in cosmetics, food and the environment, the results suggest that everyday exposure to parabens could stimulate the growth of more fat cells.
The use of parabens has been generating concern because researchers have found traces of parabens in breast cancer tumors and because the compounds can mimic, though very weakly, the female hormone estrogen.
Further research has shown that parabens may affect other hormone systems in the body, placing them in a group of chemicals called endocrine disruptors.
Scientists have suspected that some endocrine disruptors might affect the body’s metabolism. As these compounds accumulate in the environment, it stands to reason they could be contributing to the current obesity epidemic.
Public health officials have noted a significant increase in obesity in the U.S. over the past 20 years. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 35 percent of adults and about 15 percent of children in the U.S. are obese. Still, scientists have been unable to draw a firm line to any one cause of the epidemic.
The current study suggests parabens may play a role.
According to Jones, there is very little governmental oversight of the chemicals released into the environment. “That's how you get parabens at such high concentrations,” he said. “At the high concentrations that are observed in the environment, these compounds certainly could impact obesity.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains the chemicals are safe, at least in cosmetics, citing research that shows parabens are as much as 10,000 times weaker than one naturally occurring hormone. The agency states it will continue to evaluate new data, however.
The study, published in the January issue of Toxicological Sciences, was headed by researchers from the Affiliated Hospital to Changchun University of Chinese Medicine, Changchun, China, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and included researchers from the University of Cincinnati.