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Obesogens & Canned Tales: Lessons in Corporate Social Responsibility

Emerging awareness is motivating consumer and environmentalist calls for reducing use of obesity-causing industrial chemicals.

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Jan 24, 2013 – 09:00 AM EST

Tags: obesogen, environment, chemicals, toxins, sustainability, health and wellness, campbell soup


By Francesca Rheannon

America is in grip of obesity epidemic. Waistlines have been expanding since the 1970s. 

That’s because we’re too sedentary and eat too much fatty food, right? Well, that’s part of the story, but it seems there’s more to obesity than lifestyle choices. Emerging evidence points to environmental toxins that are wreaking havoc on our endocrine systems — and making people more prone to become fat and less able to lose it. 

Environmental Pollution and Obesity

These toxins are being called “obesogens” – a term I first heard in 2006, after talking with biologist, cancer-survivor and author Sandra Steingraber. I was interviewing her about the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on human health – impacts she had good reason to feel were at the root of her own illness. The chemicals, it is suspected, are causing obesity because of their effect on endocrine hormones.

The problem lies with synthetic estrogens, chemicals that increasingly flooded into the panoply of petroleum-based consumer products after World War II. They include BPA and phthalates, among others, and are showing up in the blood of all but the most isolated people on the planet.

That’s because they are ubiquitous: embedded in the lining of food cans, plastic containers, water bottles, register receipts, furniture, cosmetics, and toys, to name just a few. They are also in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, so they show up even in the fresh foods we eat and the water we drink. 

These “obesogens” have been implicated for years in other serious health problems, like cancer and birth defects. Back in the 1980s, Theo Colburn first uncovered their effect on breast cancer cells – they promoted their growth. She then showed that they inhibit fertility and cause mutations in reproductive organs. Dubbed “endocrine disruptors,” they were linked to obesity in 2006, when the first of a series of studies showed that they promote the creation of more and bigger fat cells during fetal development and early childhood.

The chemicals promote obesity in a variety of ways:

  • By encouraging the body to store fat and programming cells to become fat cells that would otherwise have become bone or muscle;
  • By making the liver insulin-resistant, which turns calories more readily into fat, rather than other tissues; and
  • By keeping the appetite from getting satiated by preventing the body’s release of the hormone leptin, which tells you when you are full.

The Political Economy Of Obesity 

The rise of obesity parallels the rise of the pervasiveness of estrogenic industrial chemicals in the environment. It also parallels the rise of high fructose corn syrup in the diet, a development tied to obesitythe growth of industrial agriculture and food manufacturing.

Geographer Julie Guthman examines the political economy of obesity in her book, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism and says the underlying cause of the obesity epidemic lies in America’s poorly regulated capitalist system, of which environmental pollution by obesogens is one flagrant example. 

She points, for example, to the fact that obesity is greatest among those who are poorest and, while she lays the fault on several causes -- including the cheap, high-calorie (think “high fructose corn syrup”) foods that poor people consume -- chemical pollution in low income neighborhoods is among them. Poor people are fatter not only because they eat hyperglycemic foods, but because they are exposed to more environmental toxins, including endocrine disruptors.

The Precautionary Principle

If environmental pollution is a significant driver of obesity, the remedies cannot lie with the individual alone. You can try eating like a Mennonite or download tip cards on ways to lower your exposures from the Breast Cancer Fund. But the best way to deal with the problem is to phase out the chemicals to begin with.

And to quote President Obama, that takes collective action.

That action must be founded in the precautionary principle, on which the chemical hazards laws of the E.U. are based. The precautionary principle states that before an industrial chemical is put into use, it must be proven safe for human health. It’s a more demanding requirement than that underlying U.S. environmental laws, but the law hasn’t hurt the E.U. economy – and U.S. law has been proven woefully inadequate at controlling such chemicals.

During the nearly 40 years the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act has been in existence, 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into the environment, but only 200 have been tested, and only five banned or restricted.

That’s why Senator Frank Lautenburg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act into the last Congress, which would bring the U.S. up to the standard of other advanced industrial nations by privileging the precautionary principle.

And while many in industry oppose it, the Safe Chemicals Act could actually benefit business by decreasing compliance requirements, expanding markets for U.S. goods, improving worker health and safety and boosting consumer confidence. It would also drive innovation in Green Chemistry, as companies pour R&D into sustainable, eco-friendly chemicals.

Consumer Demand Driving Companies To Do More

A study jointly carried out by ICIS (“market intelligence for the global chemical, energy and fertilizer industries”) and Genomatica shows that even the petrochemical-based industries responsible for obesogens are getting the sustainability religion.

The study showed that 47 percent of the companies surveyed said they had initiatives to reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in their manufacturing processes. What this means in practice is unclear, but environmental toxinsit signals that there is at least an acknowledgement on their part that more sustainable practices are desirable.

It seems consumer demand is a major driver in the companies’ growing interest in sustainability. The study reported for instance:

“Some 72% reported [consumer demand for sustainability] in the 2012 survey, a huge increase on the 57% recorded in the 2009 version.”

BPA Can Linings, A Cautionary Case 

But the road to sustainability in the chemical industry is filled with pitfalls.

Let’s take the epoxy lining in food cans as an example. Since a major source of exposure to the obesogen BPA is through food contaminated by the epoxy lining in cans, there is growing pressure from environmentalists and consumers to get the chemical replaced by safer linings. One group pushing for change is The Breast Cancer Fund, through its Cans Not Cancer Campaign.

The impetus for the campaign emerged from a report the Fund published in 2011. It found BPA in canned food that was marketed to children, with the highest levels found in Campbell’s Disney Princess and Toy Story soups. More than 70,000 letters were sent to the company demanding the company get the BPA out of its cans – and Campbell responded.

In February 2012, the company announced it would begin to phase out BPA use, with a target date of 2015.

However, the Fund and other advocates remain unsatisfied, despite giving Campbell Soup a fair amount of positive praise for its efforts. Advocates are pressing for more details on the phase-out, which have been slow in coming.

That may be because the company has not yet found an acceptable substitute for BPA-laden liners. Forbes journalist Jon Entine (who regards BPA in cans as “safe and effective” and those who are against it as “scare groups” – he also derides the precautionary principle) reported that David Stangis, food canCampbell’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, told him in a candid conversation, “We will move [away from BPA] when we find substitutes, but it’s a long way off.”

Stangis later back-pedaled from his remarks to Entine, but the issue of transparency about alternatives is real.

Alternatives do exist – after all, canned food has been around a lot longer than BPA epoxy lining. Acidic foods like tomatoes can be canned in glass, as can just about any other kind of food. Eden’s uses non-BPA linings for its beans and Tetra-paks are regarded as safe. And there’s nothing wrong with canning your own tomatoes and beans or eating them fresh or home-cooked. But BPA alternatives for industrial food processing are “difficult to source,” as the tuna company Crown Prince has found.

Regulatory Efforts Mount

Nevertheless, they must and will be found. Tougher regulations are being enacted at all levels of government. The Safer Chemicals Act will need to be taken up by the new Congress, but California has already passed the Safer Chemicals Act. 

And Suffolk County on Long Island recently banned paper receipts containing BPA. I’m relieved. Now, instead of having to decide whether to take a receipt to document my purchase – and risk chemical exposure – or to refuse it, I can take it in confidence that I’m not getting poisoned by an endocrine-disrupting, estrogenic obesogen!

It’s the kind of confidence all consumers deserve, and one that American industry is increasingly realizing it will have to honor.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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