Is Your House Making You Fat?

HBCD, a chemical hiding in your walls, could be compounding the side effects of an unhealthy diet.

January 15, 2014


You count calories, exercise daily, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. But a chemical that's hiding in your walls could be undermining your efforts to control your weight.


The chemical, HBCD (short for hexabromocyclododecane), is a flame retardant added to polystryrene foam-insulation panels to fulfill a building-code requirement that such panels resist open flames. In fact, there are roughly two pounds of HBCD for every 35 cubic feet or so of Styrofoam insulation in the average U.S. home.

However, a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives sheds some new light on this unhealthy compound.

In the study, mice were fed either a high-fat diet containing 62 percent fat from calories or a normal diet. Then both groups were given low, medium, or high doses of HBCD. In the high-fat diet group, the mice given the medium and high doses of HBCD had "markedly increased" body and liver weight, the researchers noticed, as well as spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, compared to the normal-diet mice and the other high-fat diet mice who'd received lower levels. Although the high dose was seven times higher than what scientists consider safe, the medium dose, which also caused weight gain, was about a third lower.

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Basically, the authors found HBCD can exacerbate the fat-building and diabetes-inducing effects of a fatty, unhealthy diet. And unfortunately, you're being exposed to these chemicals every hour you're in your home.

HBCD is known as a persistent organic pollutant: it's been detected in human breast milk, fatty tissue, and blood, and it builds up in the fatty tissues of both land and marine mammals as far away as the Arctic. HBCD is so environmentally persistent that the United Nations' Stockholm Convention, a global treaty created to protect people from toxic, nonbiodegradable chemicals, decided to call for a global ban on the chemical, set to take effect in August 2015. The stuff is so potentially harmful that, in order to control whatever levels of this chemical that remain in the environment after the ban, the treaty declared that no HBCD-containing products can be recycled.

The best way to reduce your HBCD exposure is to vacuum and dust regularly, since the chemical can migrate out of insulation with age and bind to the dust that settles in your home.

Also, continue eating a healthy diet. As the authors noted, these chemicals don't in and of themselves lead to weight gain, but they compound the damage of unhealthy foods. The healthier your diet, the less you need to worry.