Obesity Villains – Air, Water, and Teflon

California's Central Valley
California’s Central Valley

What if a single damaging environmental condition affected 40% of the world’s children? Would that explain the obesity epidemic that also affects such a large percentage of kids worldwide? Several studies have linked secondhand cigarette smoke with childhood obesity, and that 40% figure represents the percentage of kids in the world who are exposed to secondhand smoke in the homes where they grow up. By the time they are 10 years old, they are more likely to have wider waists and higher Body Mass Index numbers than their peers raised in non-smoking homes.

These facts were established by University of Montreal scientists working with others from the Sainte Justine Research Centre. The study leader, Prof. Linda Pagani, believes the influence of environmental smoke to be as great as that of prenatal maternal smoking. Young children apparently go through a developmental stage that has been labeled the “adiposity rebound period,” during which weight gain sets them up for grave long-term consequences.

Prof. Pagani’s team acquired its raw data from the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, which has collected a massive amount of information on 2055 families. In summarizing the study for PsychCentral.com, Traci Pedersen quotes Prof. Pagani:

Early childhood exposure to secondhand smoke could be influencing endocrine imbalances and altering neurodevelopmental functioning at this critical period in hypothalamic development, thus damaging vital systems…The mechanisms by which household smoke negatively influences immune, neurodevelopmental, and cardiovascular processes are multiple and transactional.

For one thing, little kids need more fresh air than adults do, so a smoky atmosphere hits their immature systems harder in much the same way that an alcoholic drink will affect a 100-pound woman more noticeably than a 200-pound man.

Remember Teflon, the coating for nonstick cookware? It throws off a chemical called PFOA, which not only enters the bodies of pregnant women, but proceeds straight through their systems to invade the bodies of unborn children. The placenta was designed to protect a fetus from many things, but Nature didn’t build it tough enough to keep out PFOA. The chemical causes babies to gain more weight at a faster rate than infants who were not exposed. There was a foundation of previous research, says journalist Bill Walker:

In 2012, a study by researchers in three Nordic nations showed that children whose mothers had been exposed to high levels of PFOA while pregnant were more likely to be obese at age 20.

A more recent study from Brown University confirms the link between PFOA and childhood obesity, with the chemical abetting the addition of enough body fat to give a child an unwelcome head start toward developing diabetes later on. The research subjects were from Cincinnati, which has been making an effort to remove the chemical from its drinking water from well over a decade—and yet its effect is still felt.

The West Coast’s water supply also has its problems. In California’s Central Valley, where thousands of farm workers harvest a large portion of the nation’s food, the Hispanic population experiences a disproportionate amount of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Researchers from UC Davis worked with families in communities served by 13 different water systems with varying levels of regulation by state or county authorities, including no regulation at all. Karen Nikos writes:

All of the systems have been identified as having violations for contamination in the last 12 years for high levels of coliform bacteria, arsenic, or disinfection byproducts… The study was looking for a link between poor-quality tap water and child obesity.

At least one link was found. Even when the cloudy tap water is not technically unfit to drink, its unattractive taste and appearance turn people off. Workers who are among the nation’s most impoverished populations are stuck with the choice of buying bottled water or buying expensive filtration systems. One way to get around this problem in the short term, for folks with no money to spare, is to drink sugar-sweetened beverages, which are often cheaper than bottled water. The obesity connection is obvious.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Toddlers Exposed to Secondhand Smoke More Likely to Have Higher BMI at Age 10,” PsychCentral.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Study: Teflon Chemical Linked to Childhood Obesity,” ewg.org, 11/13/15
Source: “Why some kids avoid California’s tap water,” Futurity.org, 12/15/14
Image by Kai Schreiber

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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