The amount of fat stored in our bodies may be influenced by exposure to phthalates, says research published in Toxicology in Vitro.
Phthalates are chemicals that occur in a range of products, from nail polish to soap. They commonly feature in plastics, where they enhance elasticity.
Previous studies have revealed the presence of phthalates in fluids in the human body, and there is growing evidence to suggest that they are detrimental to human health.
Research has linked some phthalates with reproductive problems at high levels of exposure. However, the impact of low-level exposure to butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP) has not been studied fully.
Researchers - led by Lei Yin, an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Public Health's department of environmental health science - believe that phthalates may contribute to the development of various conditions and diseases.
With this in mind, they wanted to find out whether BBP affects the way fat accumulates in cells.
Both BBPs and BPAs encourage fat accumulation in mice
Using mouse cells, the researchers created in vitro models that enabled them to analyze how exposure to BBP affects the accumulation of oils and fats within cells.
To quantify the lipid, or fat, accumulation, the team stained the cells, making it possible to examine them visually under a microscope.
They also used a technique known as cellomics high-content analysis, a screening method that involves image processing algorithms and computer machine learning. It can measure multiple parameters quickly and objectively, explains Yin.
The team compared the effects of BBP with those of bisphenol A (BPA), an environmental endocrine disruptor known to impact the development of fat cells.
Results showed that exposure to both BBP and BPA yields a similar reaction in cells.
Both BBP and BBA caused lipid droplets to accumulate. However, when cells were treated with BBP, the fat droplets were larger, implying that BBP exposure could contribute to obesity.
Co-author Xiaozhong Yu, an assistant professor of environmental health science, says:
"Obesity is one of the big issues in humans now, and, of course, genetic components can contribute to the development of obesity. However, environmental exposure may also contribute to obesity."
Yin speculates that over time, a very low dose of some chemicals could be harmful.
While we cannot assume that human cells would react in the same way as mice, the results indicate a potential link between BBP exposure and obesity, which could apply to humans.
Yin hopes to investigate further how other environmental chemicals may affect obesity. She would also like to explore whether certain plant-based chemicals might counter the negative effects of more noxious substances.
Medical News Today recently reported on research suggesting that the use of BPAs in food packaging may contribute to fat formation in cells.