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Exposure to PCBs may increase visceral fat.

Persistent organic pollutants are ubiquitous environmental toxicants that pose considerable threats to human health. These compounds typically degrade slowly and are often referred to as “forever compounds.” A 2012 study found that exposure to the organic pollutants polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) was associated with having increased visceral fat.

PCBs were historically used in industrial and chemical applications, such as coolants, transformer insulators, capacitors, motors, paints, and electrical wire coatings. Although PCBs have been banned in the United States, the compounds are widespread in the environment. Exposure to PCBs is associated with an increased risk of adverse health effects, including many chronic disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, melanoma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. PCB exposure may also be linked to neurodegenerative disease PCBs bioaccumulate in human muscle and adipose tissue, brain, liver, and lungs and have long elimination half-lives, ranging from 10 to 15 years.

The cross-sectional study involved more than 1,000 adults (70 years and older) living in Sweden. Participants provided information about their medical histories, education level, exercise habits, smoking habits, and medication use. A subset of 287 participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging to assess body fat location and quantity. Investigators collected blood samples from the participants to detect the presence of persistent organic pollutants.

They found that higher blood concentrations of the organic pollutant PCB189, a highly chlorinated PCB, were associated with having greater quantities of visceral fat, suggesting that environmental exposures influence fat deposition in humans. Interestingly, PCB189 exposure and increased visceral fat are associated with type 2 diabetes, potentially providing a mechanistic link between body fat and diabetes risk.

Although exposure to persistent organic pollutants is likely unavoidable, some PCBs are excreted in sweat. Sauna use, which induces copious sweating, may promote PCB excretion. Learn more about the beneficial health effects of sauna use in our overview article.

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