A new study has revealed an association between childhood obesity and phthalate exposure. Phthalates are industrial compounds used in a huge array of consumer products, including hairsprays, wood finishers, vinyl flooring, medical devices and more. The chemicals are known to cause reproductive problems when babies are exposed in utero, and have been linked to early puberty in girls and fertility problems in men.
In the most recent study of hundreds of Hispanic and black New York City children between the ages of 6 and 8, it was a phthalate metabolite called monoethyl (MEP) that was associated with greater body mass and waist circumference in overweight children. This same association was not seen among children overall, but specifically among those children who already had weight challenges. It was the first study to look at phthalate exposure and body weight in children, although earlier studies have found similar associations between MEP and body weight and waist circumference in teens and women.
MEP comes from the breakdown of diethyl phthalate (DEP) which Environmental Working Group reports is “most often used as a fragrance ingredient in perfume, cologne, deodorant, soap, shampoo, lotion and other personal care products.” And exposure to MEP is widespread. It has been detected in 7,922 of the 8,015 people tested in biomonitoring studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the most recent study, published in Environmental Research, children with the obesity-phthalate connection had a 10-fold increase in MEP.
Phthalates have long been recognized as endocrine disruptors—meaning they can disrupt the body’s normal hormone processing—and it’s become evident in recent years that this can impact not only reproductive systems and functioning, but also weight and brain development. Last year, a research team from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that prenatal phthalate exposure was associated with social and behavioral problems seen in autism. And phthalates don’t have to be present in large doses to cause problems. Male reproductive problems have been seen with prenatal phthalate exposure in amounts less than is found in one-quarter of the female population of the U.S.
While phthalates have been banned from some baby and children’s products, the federal law has not specified which chemicals may be used to replace phthalates, leading to more potential health problems. In the meantime, the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units has produced a fact sheet about which plastics consumers should avoid to limit exposure to phthalates and the endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA). They recommend avoiding all #3 plastics, which are PVC or vinyl and contain phthalates; all #6 or Styrofoam; and all #7 plastics which may contain BPA.