By Raoul Biron, Staff Writer

Over a decade ago, a student at UNH brought a paper that conjectured a correlation between the rise in synthetic chemicals in the environment and the obesity epidemic to the attention of their nutrition professor.

Despite having initial doubts about the hypothesis and the lack of current research on the subject, professor of nutritional sciences Dr. Gale Carey decided to perform an initial experiment.

“We wanted to see if we were to expose animals to environmental chemicals, if they do anything while they’re sitting there. That was a novel question at that time. No one had asked that question before,” Carey said. 

Carey began exposing rats to chemicals often found in flame retardants commonly found in furniture. These chemicals are fat soluble and uniformly present in people, making their way into the body mostly through dust and its degradation in landfills.

The continued experiment, which would go on to include multiple graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, yielded startling results. Test animals were showing strong precursors to obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes after only a month’s exposure to elevated concentrations of flame retardants. 

“Metabolic obesity is sort of a prelude to gaining the weight. It’s what starts the problems,” Carey said. “This resistance to insulin, this over sensitivity to epinephrine, that starts the ball rolling.”

For researchers, a fundamental problem with exploring chemicals like this is that for ethical reasons, there can never be a true control-based experiment. According to Carey, the presence of unresearched chemicals in the environment and their impact on human health is a larger problem that needs to be addressed.

Approaching the subject from a purely environmental view has proven to be challenging to researchers like Carey.

“For chemicals like these flame retardants or pesticides or herbicides, things that aren’t meant to get into the human body, there is no testing that has to be done,” Carey said. “There are no hoops to jump through. And without those constraints, the industries may get public pressure and change what they are producing, but they can just make something else. And the replacement can be equally bad or worse. As scientists we’re always playing catch-up.”

The results Carey and her grad-students yielded are ground breaking, but represent a larger lack of understanding. Identifying potential links between chemicals in our environments and health problems is an initial step for nutritionists and chemists like Carey, but the results from her experiments don’t explain exactly why these events occur or how to prevent them.

“Every question that we answer seems to result in five more,” Carey said. “It’s going to take a ground-swelling from the grassroots and a culture shift, where people say ‘you know, do we need these chemicals?’”

Carey is currently planning a collaborative inter-institutional experiment between the UNH Sustainability Office and the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit focused on public health. The experiment will measure the presence of these flame retardant chemicals in 30 dorm rooms over six or seven residence halls at UNH this spring.   

“This will be the first study of its kind,” Carey said. “We will be one of three campuses taking part. We’re hoping that this information can be used to inform policy of the universities and colleges, regarding their purchasing principles. UNH is delighted to be part of research that might inform policy changes.”

Carey hopes to eventually be able to study student’s blood for the presence of these chemicals as well. Carey’s research is currently being represented at professional conferences and by undergraduates at the Undergraduate Research Conference.

“Raising awareness through sustainability, that’s a goal,” Carey said.