Increasing exposure to the chemicals may be partially responsible for the obesity crisis and rising levels of diabetes in the developed world, a report from the Chem Trust has argued.
The chemicals include pesticides, paint additives, flame retardants, diesel, and ingredients in plastics used to make food containers and tubing.
The report entitled Review of the Science Linking Chemical Exposures to the Human Risk of Obesity and Diabetes written by two academics from the University of North Carolina and Kyungpook National University, in South Korea reviewed 240 research papers.
The chemicals enter the food chain and build up in the body where they distrust human hormones to encourage the storage of fat, alter appetite and slow the rate at which fat is burned, it was claimed.
Unborn babies are at particular risk, the report said.
It concluded that exposure to the chemicals should be reduced and national governments should act to ensure they were replaced with alternatives.
The Chem Trust is a listed company and a charity funded by Greenpeace and the WWF.
Elizabeth Salter Green, director of the CHEM Trust, said: “If exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals is programming us to be fat, it is high time that public health policy takes into account cutting edge science.
“Obesity and diabetes are examples of the adverse health trends linked with endocrine disruption which need to be urgently addressed. We are talking about prevention, not cure here, and in this time of financial squeeze, anything that can help with prevention, reducing NHS spending, is a good idea.”
“CHEM Trust is calling for the UK Government and the EU to urgently identify hormone disrupters to ensure that chemicals suspected of playing a role in diabetes and obesity are substituted with safer alternatives.”
Co-author of the report, Professor Miquel Porta from the School of Public health at the University of North Carolina said: “The epidemics in obesity and diabetes are extremely worrying. The role of hormone disrupting chemicals in this must be addressed.
“The number of such chemicals that contaminate humans is considerable.
“We must encourage new policies that help minimise human exposure to all relevant hormone disrupters, especially women planning pregnancy, as it appears to be the foetus developing in utero that is at greatest risk.”
However independent experts said the research was inconclusive and said leading a healthy lifestyle by eating sensibly and exercising was the best way to reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “We welcome the publication of this report, though it is important to emphasise that any possible effect of chemicals on obesity and diabetes is a difficult subject to research and as a result our understanding of it is very limited. Put simply, we do not know whether there is a link between certain chemicals and obesity and diabetes.
“But even if there is a real link, the effect of chemicals in our food is very likely to be much less than that of the energy in it. It is clear that eating foods and drinks that contain lots of calories increases your risk of becoming overweight and that this, in turn, increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.
“We would be concerned if this report diluted the very simple and evidence-based message that limiting the amount of calories in your diet and being regularly physically active is the best way of maintaining a healthy weight and so reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.”
Prof Richard Sharpe, from the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Reproductive Health, at Edinburgh University, said: “There is no direct evidence in humans that any such chemicals actually cause obesity or type 2 diabetes, although we know that poor diet and overeating may do so.
“For at least some of the chemicals, a poor Western diet and/or low socioeconomic status is likely to lead to increased exposure to the chemicals. So is it the chemicals or the diet that causes the obesity? In my opinion, the chemicals are bystanders which are accidentally dragged in.
“Common sense tells every one of us that eating too much and of the wrong foods causes obesity which then leads to type 2 diabetes etc.
“The evidence from animal experimental studies for the chemicals causing obesity etc is at best equivocal and is in any case difficult to equate straightforwardly to humans.”