Paula Baillie-Hamilton first published a paper linking chemical toxins to obesity in 2002
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The mother who exposed the links between obesity and common chemicals
12th January, 2012
A growing interest in the links between exposure to chemicals and obesity is a testament in part to the pioneering work of Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton
Laurie Tuffrey: Could you explain your theory about the link between environmental chemicals and weight gain?
Paula Baillie-Hamilton: My hypothesis is that chemicals are the basis behind the global epidemic, because at the levels of chemicals we are being exposed to, they’re poisoning our weight control systems, which is damaging our ability to lose weight and make us fatter.
The chemicals treat our appetite so that you actually want to eat certain foods and they make you crave the worst foods. Catecholamines like adrenaline and dopamine that help weight loss are reduced by the chemicals, which affects both metabolism and the desire to go out for a walk, so you can’t lose weight the way you could.
LT: Could this be as much of a contributory factor to obesity as poor diet and lack of exercise?
PB-H: If you have a poor diet, one of the few things that can actually get rid of lower levels of chemicals in the body is vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The problem is that the level of nutrients in foods has been decreasing for years now, because they only put a couple of minerals back in artificial fertilisers and there are only about 100 minerals in the earth’s crust. So the soils are getting grossly deficient and the foods are getting very deficient.
When you read a label saying how many minerals there are, it’s a work of fiction sometimes. The levels of vitamins also go down, because of the extended storage time – sometimes there’s no vitamin C in oranges at all. We need these vitamins and minerals to process the chemicals: our body can’t actually recognise and can’t deal with a lot of these chemicals, because our metabolic detoxification systems were created before we were exposed to all these synthetic artificial chemicals. We’re being exposed to more and more chemicals, but we’re getting less vitamins and minerals in the food, so that exacerbates the problem even further. If we eat processed foods, they have even lower levels than organic food.
LT: How did you first highlight this risk?
PB-H: I did my PhD on how chemicals affect metabolism. Part of my work was looking at breast cancer and how to tell the difference between scar tissue and new cancers. A question that always confused me was why are women getting breast cancer, why are the numbers increasing every year? At the time I think it was about one in 12, now I think it’s about one in 10, but that is the general trend.
After I had my second child and was trying to lose weight, I read an article saying that chemicals are already in the environment at levels which were affecting our wildlife; I’d never heard of these chemicals before, but the fact that really interested me was that they acted like fake female hormones. This is probably why there was an increase in breast cancer, and although I wasn’t the first to think of that, I thought that must be affecting my weight.
For years I was doing research on that and trying to find out exactly how the body loses weight. At the time, people didn’t know that chemicals cause weight gain. You look at other evidence for chemicals that cause weight gain in drugs and medicine and a lot of chemicals used there are pretty much the same as are used in pesticides – a lovely finding! From this, you can see the pesticides which are likely to cause weight gain. But again, nothing was listed as ‘PCBs and weight gain’ or ‘PCBs and obesity’, because they wouldn’t have listed it as that, they would only list weight loss.
LT: Why do you think it’s taken such a long time for the idea that environmental chemicals are linked to obesity rates to take hold?
PB-H: I remember having an interview with a professor on Radio 4 and I came out thinking ‘ouch!’ It was hard for him to accept - he knew nothing about toxicology, he knew nothing about all these different things, but he just didn’t accept it, because it didn’t affirm his life work, so he got very cross. People get very aggressive with new ideas sometimes, and they try to knock them down and I was an easy target because I’m a mum and I didn’t do this work in an academic environment. [Baillie-Hamilton is now a Visiting Fellow in Occupational and Environmental Health at Stirling University in Scotland]. Ideas like that, they want to come from big institutions, but the thing is, those people are driven by profit, they’re funded by big companies, who don’t have a broader picture.
There’s so much there that most medical doctors don’t have a clue about. It’s such a pity and it makes me really upset, because people are missing out on so much better health because of this lack of knowledge. Doctors aren’t taught about toxicology or why we need nutrients and what sort of nutrients we need. Medicines at the moment cost a lot of money, but they only tweak the body systems and don’t actually make them better. I’m more interested in finding out what causes the problems and treating them, so that the body can actually sort itself out – that’s my thing, how to reverse the problem.
LT: Do you feel vindicated now that there is an emergence of research and exposure, like the forthcoming documentary, 'Programmed to be Fat', supporting your theory?
PB-H: It’s great that it’s all coming out now: the sooner the better, because people need to know about it and change policies. I think once more research is done then it will help everyone because these chemicals don’t just cause weight problems, they’re behind so many health problems. It will help all round, I think help people will help themselves. And it’s really good for protecting my family as well – I don’t want my kids to be poisoned!
LT: Did you see yourself as a lone wolf figure?
PB-H: I just see myself as someone who wants people to get better. I can’t fight political battles, I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is what makes people ill and how to fix it: that’s the thing that gets me, to see people ill, know that they can improve their health so easily and trying to help them. That’s what I spend my time doing now really, in so-called incurable illnesses which doctors have pooh-poohed.
LT: What can we change to stop the problem?
PB-H: Chemicals. The powers that be need to wake up to the fact of what the worst chemicals are, the scale of the problem out there, the level of contamination in food, water and household products, and different chemicals in the carpet that have been banned in other countries but are used here.
Mercury fillings are my number one problem. If I was to get anything done, I would get mercury fillings banned. They’ve been banned in other countries – the Swedish government will pay towards having mercury fillings taken out. It’s cheap and cheerful for dentists to do it and the government pay, but in the long term it’s much cheaper if they put in white or porcelain fillings. The mercury leaches out of the fillings and I find it causes things like anxious depression, anxiety, ME, gut disorders, auto-immune disorders, asthma and nervous system disorders. Also, chemicals that don’t biodegrade, like the organo-chlorines and the PCCs, those are a major issue, they shouldn’t be allowed. I heard recently that they’re introducing DDT for malaria prevention and it just makes me ill. It might wipe out some mosquitoes, but it just won’t disappear, it lasts in the soil, it comes from imported food back to our country.
Another problem is chemicals which are very persistent, particularly bromines, which are in different fire-retardant products around the house. Your body cannot see them and it cannot process them, but it gets stuck with them for decades.
LT: Do you support US academic Dr Bruce Blumberg’s idea that developmental exposure (i.e. foetal) to obesogens can have permanent effects, while exposure in adulthood is non-permanent?
PB-H: I do support the first part of this statement as I actually raised this concept in my academic hypothesis paper in 2002 and in more detail in my book The Detox Diet in the same year.
I heard on the radio recently that if you block a child’s eye at a certain stage of development, even if you take the eye patch away, it will be blind because it’s time-sensitive - if you damage something along the way then it will be affected for the rest of their life, it’s like congenital abnormalities. If they’re exposed to chemicals at certain times then they might have heart abnormalities or something else. With developmental exposure, the foetus’s detoxification system hasn’t really matured, so smaller amounts of chemicals affect you much more than they would in an adult.
However I certainly would not support the idea that exposure in adulthood is non-permanent as there is a vast body of published academic evidence suggesting that exposure in adulthood to toxic synthetic chemicals can also result in permanent damage to the body. This is because many synthetic chemical pesticides poison nerves and the brain. Indeed most pesticides are designed to target the nervous system as this controls the functioning of the bug the pesticide has been designed to kill. The better the nerve poison is the more effective the pesticide. Now in adult humans, the perceived wisdom is once most nerve cells are killed they tend not to regenerate. So if these nerve cells are killed by pesticides, then they are lost forever. Unlike in the developing foetus, the body is less able to replace them with other nerve cells. As the nervous system controls the 'slimming hormones' i.e. dopamine and adrenaline, damage to the nerve cells which produce these slimming hormones could therefore be permanent. This observation can be seen in other academic research papers on humans and animal studies.
LT: What can you eat to minimise your exposure to environmental chemicals?
PB-H: The most obvious ones are organic foods, but they’re quite expensive. In my book, I looked at all the chemical s used in foods, which foods are more polluted than others and which foods affect the weight control systems more than others. Basically, less-processed foods are better, but things that you can peel or prepare are much better or much safer.
Things like avocados have very low levels of chemicals, because they’re quite hardy and resistant, but the fragile foods such as lettuce, they are heaving with levels of really nasty pesticides, which can be easily detected and measured. They don’t switch off when they go into your body, and it’s difficult to wash these things off because they stick onto leaves and sometimes you can wash them off with washing up liquid, but some don’t and some are actually incorporated into the body of the thing.
It’s best if you can have fruit and veg you can peel, although it’s a pity because you can lose some of the nutrients which are in the skin, but things which are more delicate and likely to be sprayed like lettuce and strawberries, it’s best if you can go organic or grow your own. If you avoid things with a lot of added e-numbers and artificial sweeteners, and have fewer colourings and additives, that’s also a positive thing.
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