WATERVILLE — A bad start can last a lifetime.

So while munching potato chips and being a couch potato can result in obesity, so too can endocrine-disrupting chemicals that impact fetuses in the womb.

That’s according to Dr. Jerrod Heindel, acting chief of Cellular, Organ & Systems Pathobiology in the Division of Extramural Research and Training at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Heindel was one of several speakers at a conference, “Chemicals, Obesity and Diabetes: How Science Leads Us To Action,” held Friday at Colby College.

He said a majority of diseases that take hold during the first weeks or months of life may not show up clinically until many years later.

Heindel said fetuses and young children whose organs are still developing are particularly sensitive to chemicals. And many chemicals, he said, mimic hormones and disrupt the endocrine system. That can lead to a host of problems, he said, including obesity, early puberty, asthma and attention deficit disorders.

Some chemicals, said Heindel, can alter people’s “set point” so they do not feel full, keep eating and develop weight problems.

And obesity is a tsunami engulfing the United States, said Dr. Michael Dedekian, a pediatrician specializing in endocrinology and diabetes at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

“It’s the major public health issue of our time,” he said.

Dedekian said 17 percent of children and nearly 40 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese; 30 to 40 percent of children and 80 percent of adults are overweight.

While Dedekian said personal responsibility and parental responsibility are key to weight management, but he added that causes of obesity are complex and include genes, parenting, environment, mental health, hormones, food quality and lifestyle.

Because of the complexity of causes, and due to the disease’s devastating impacts, Dedekian said cooperation is needed among communities and governments, as well as medical professionals and exercise therapists to combat the problem.

Dedekian works with families to change lifestyles and eating habits. Among the children he treats, he said about 50 percent have success getting to and maintaining a healthy weight.

Bruce Blumberg, a professor in the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California Irvine, said in the last two decades when obesity rates have ballooned in this country, so too have the number of health clubs.

Financial costs to treat the problem have also soared.

In 2005, Blumberg said the annual health-care costs associated with obesity totaled $75 billion. In 2009, such costs had risen to $147 billion.

And it might get worse.

Blumberg cited the Sweden Överkalix study published in 2005 that indicated that what one generation ate impacted mortality rates of their grandchildren.

Beth Staples — 861-9252
[email protected]