Childhood obesity linked to phthalate exposure.

Feb 07, 2012

Teitlbaum, SL, N Mervish, EL Moshier, N Vangeepuram, MP Galvez, AM Calafat, MJ Silva, BL Brenner and MS Wolff. 2011. Associations between phthalate metabolite urinary concentrations and body size measures in New York City children. Environmental Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2011.12.006.

Synopsis by Steven Neese

Higher urinary concentrations of phthalates most commonly used in personal care products were associated with body size measures in overweight children.

Overweight children tend to have higher levels of certain phthalate metabolites in their urine, according to a year-long study of minority populations in New York City.

The trend was not seen in normal weight children. The researchers found the relationship only with one kind of phthalate known as MEP. More specifically, they report that a 10-fold increase in MEP concentrations was associated with subsequent increases in body mass index (BMI) and waist size.

This is the first study to examine the association between phthalate exposure and body weight measures in children. Prior studies in teens and women find a similar association between the same phthalate – MEP – and the same two body measures.

Childhood obesity is a major health concern in the United States. Poor diet and lack of exercise are two crucial factors that relate to the rise in obesity, but research suggests exposure to environmental contaminants may also play a role in this epidemic. Exposures are of concern because children are rapidly growing and developing.

Phthalates are a large and variable family of chemicals. As components in many plastics, they are found in medical devices, food packaging, flooring and food processing equipment. Other phthalates with different chemical properties are used in personal care products, such as cosmetics and perfumes. Phthalates can leach from products and be ingested, breathed or absorbed through the skin.

Some phthalates are considered endocrine disrupting compounds. This means they can interfere with hormones, including those important to fat tissue development and function.

Due to health safety concerns, specific baby and toddler products sold in the United States and the European Union can no longer contain certain phthalates. The ban includes soft plastic toys.

Researchers studied Hispanic and Black children aged 6-8 years old who lived in New York City between 2004 and 2007. A urine sample from each child was analyzed for a variety of phthalate metabolites, which are common markers for phthalate exposure. A year later, all of the children were measured for weight, height, waist and hip circumference, and body fat composition. They also assessed activity level and diet.

Overall, increases in MEP – monoethylene phthalate – alone and a combination of low molecular weight phthalate metabolites (including MEP) were associated with increased BMI – a measure of weight divided by height – and waist circumference in overweight children. Phthalates with a low molecular weight are most commonly used in personal care products.

This relationship was strongest in girls. Due to the limited number of boys in the study, researchers could not associate exposures to body measures in “boys only."

Phthalate metabolites were measured in nearly all children, suggesting the need for more research on the association of these chemicals to childhood obesity.

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