Can Oil Spills Make You Fat?

A study published by the faculty of Medical University of South Carolina indicates that oil spills and the chemicals used to clean up those spills may be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

About six years ago, in April 2010 an explosion in Deepwater Horizon caused the release of over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In response, about 2 million gallons of dispersant was used to emulsify the released oil with the hope of hastening oil biodegradation and preventing the spilled oil from reaching fragile habitats onshore.

Both the oil and the dispersant used to cleanup the spill are implicated as


Emergency Response After Deepwater Horizon Explosion

potential endocrine and metabolic disruptors. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can cause developmental and reproductive abnormalities by disrupting hormonal balance. Epidemiological studies link human exposure to EDCs with obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.


Obesity is a major global health problem that contributes to a variety of diseases, including hypertension and cancer in addition to type 2 diabetes. Historically obesity in individuals was attributed to an imbalance in food eaten versus energy expended. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise and other lifestyle were considered the drivers of the obesity epidemic.

Recent evidence now suggests that certain environmental agents known as “obesogens” may also significantly contribute to obesity, especially in children. Studies using cell cultures and animal models indicate obesogenic compounds appear to alter metabolism and fat cell production.

The study published by the faculty of Medical University of South Carolina found that dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate (DOSS), the principal component of the dispersant used for oil remediation, is a “likely obesogen.”


Clean Up After the Deepwater Horizon Spill.  Source: NOAA

The study should serve as warning. In addition to being used as a dispersant in oil spills, the chemical is also used in many consumer goods, including household cleaning products, deodorants, hair coloring, nail polishes and as a laxative for pregnant women.


That’s right. The study suggests that a laxative given to pregnant women may alter the endocrine and metabolic systems of both the mother and her child.

Historic studies of chemicals used in our daily lives, if conducted at all, typically focused on what exposure levels caused cancer. New scientific understanding requires study into the impact of everyday chemicals in altering other human systems, including endocrine and metabolic.

Obesity related diseases are difficult for individuals and their families. The increased rates of obesity is creating major pressure on the US health care system. Understanding the role of chemicals in the growing obesity epidemic will save lives, reduce healthcare costs and improve public health.

Allocating research funds to understand the role of obesogens on human health is an imperative.

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