Childhood Obesity Risk Increases with Phthalate Exposure

by Jackie Hershwitz

Phthalates Lead to ObesityChildren are more apt to be obese when they have higher levels of phthalate in their bodies, recent research shows.

Children with the highest blood levels of DEHP, di-ethylhexyl phthalate, had nearly five times the odds of being obese compared with children who had the lowest levels.

Phthalate, a common industrial chemical used to soften plastics, can be found in pacifiers, children's toys, plastic food packages, vinyl flooring and even in personal care products, including soap and shampoo. Phthalates can leach from the products and be ingested, breathed or absorbed through the skin.

About the Study

Dr. Park and colleagues looked for a correlation between exposure to phthalates and childhood obesity. They measured the levels of DEHP in 204 children, ages 6 to 13 years. One hundred five of the children were obese and 99 were at a healthy weight.

The researchers divided these DEHP measurements into four groups from the lowest detectable level to the highest. They found that the obese children had a significantly higher average DEHP level than did the nonobese controls. A high DEHP level correlated with body mass index and percentage of fat mass.

You might be thinking that the heavier children were less active or had a poorer diet. The study indicates otherwise. The increased risk of obesity with elevation of DEHP levels was independent of such factors such as physical activity and daily calorie intake, according to the authors.

Phthalate Concerns

Previous studies have associated phthalate exposure with endocrine disruption and asthma, early puberty in girls, and learning disabilities. Prenatal exposure increases a child's risk of developing eczema. Now exposure contributes to childhood obesity.

Many experts believe that these findings underscore the need to phase phthalates out of consumer products and construction materials.

Although specific baby and toddler products sold in the United States and the European Union can no longer contain certain phthalates, the ban may not adequately protect children.

Limit Your Exposure to Phthalates

Buy phthalate-free cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products and detergents. Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates on the label. Look for companies that pledge not to use these chemicals.

Avoid buying plastics that could be treated with phthalates, including vinyl toys, shower curtains and gloves. Look out for "PVC," "V" or the"3" recycling code on the item or its packaging.

Instead choose products and toys such as phthalate-free Legos or those made of unpainted solid wood and finished with tung oil or beeswax blocks. Ask for dolls that are phthalate-free.

Eat less processed food. Make it yourself, from scratch. Food containers and preparation methods can contribute to phthalate levels.

Buy plastic wrap and bags made from polyethylene. Store food in glass containers or plastic containers marked with recycling codes other than the #3. If you use plastic containers, do not heat or microwave food in them.

Air it out. Indoor air tends to have higher contaminant levels than outdoors. Open your window a few minutes each day and ventilate the house.

Choose an eco-healthy childcare. Choose a daycare committed to reducing potentially harmful toxics in their facility.

Wipe it up. If you have vinyl flooring, damp mop regularly. Phthalates bind to the dust particles on the floor. Direct sunlight causes faster release of DEHP, so place or lower blind on windows that shine directly on the floor.

Choose PVC-free building materials.

Take action. Urge your legislators to support reforms that would tighten up regulation of problem chemicals and require testing of new chemicals before they're allowed for use.

Do you try to limit your child's exposure to phthalates and similar chemicals? How do you do it?

Medical references:
- Park, Mi Jung, et al. (2012, June 26). "Phthalate, environmental chemical is linked to higher rates of childhood obesity." Endocrine Society. Retrieved July 11, 2012