Scientists at the University of California, Irvine have discovered a link between a chemical used in PVC plastic and obesity in the offspring of mice.

After exposing pregnant mice to low doses of the chemical tributyltin (TBT), the researchers observed increased body fat, liver fat and fat-specific gene expression in their "children," "grandchildren" and "great-grandchildren" — none of which had been exposed to the chemical.

According to UC Irvine professor of pharmaceutical sciences and developmental & cell biology Bruce Blumberg, the findings suggest that early-life exposure to endocrine-disrupting compounds such as TBT can have permanent effects of fat accumulation without further exposure.

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Human exposure to TBT can occur through PVC plastic particles in dust and via leaching of the chemical and other related organotin compounds from PVC pipes and containers.

Blumberg categorizes TBT as an obesogen, a class of chemicals that promote obesity by increasing the number of fat cells or the storage of fat in existing cells. He and his colleagues first identified the role of obesogens in a 2006 publication and showed in 2010 that TBT acts in part by modifying the fate of mesenchymal stem cells during development, predisposing them to become fat cells.

The study is published online in Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.