Researchers from the Children's Environmental Health Center at The Mount
Sinai Medical Center in New York have found an association between
exposure to the chemical group known as phthalates and obesity in young children - including increased body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.
Phthalates are man-made, endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can mimic
the body's natural hormones. They are commonly used in plastic flooring
and wall coverings, food processing materials, medical devices, and
personal-care products. While poor nutrition
and physical inactivity are known to contribute to obesity, a growing
body of research suggests that environmental chemicals - including
phthalates - could play a role in rising childhood obesity rates.
This study was the first to examine the relationship between phthalate
exposure and measurements used to identify obesity in children. The
paper is available online in the journal Environmental Research. The
project was funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health
Sciences, the National Cancer Institute, and the U.S. Environmental
Mount Sinai researchers measured phthalate concentrations in the urine
of 387 black and Hispanic children in New York City, and recorded body
measurements including BMI, height, and waist circumference one year
later. The urine tests revealed that greater than 97 percent of study
participants had been exposed to phthalates typically found in personal
care products such as perfume, lotions, and cosmetics; varnishes; and
medication or nutritional supplement coatings. The phthalates included
monoethyl phthalate (MEP) and other low molecular-weight phthalates. The
team also found an association between concentrations of these
phthalates with BMI and waist circumference among overweight children.
For example, BMI in overweight girls with the highest exposure to MEP
was 10 percent higher than those with the lowest MEP exposure.
"Research has shown that exposure to these everyday chemicals may impair
childhood neurodevelopment, but this is the first evidence
demonstrating that they may contribute to childhood obesity," said the
study's lead author Susan Teitelbaum, PhD, Associate Professor in the
Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
"This study also further emphasizes the importance of reducing exposure
to these chemicals where possible."
The percentage of obese children ages six to 11 in the United States has
grown from seven percent in 1980 to more than 40 percent in 2008,
according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More
than 15 percent of American children between the ages six and 19 are
characterized as obese. In New York City, more than one in five children
in public schools are obese.
Dr. Teitelbaum and the team at the Children's Environmental Health
Center plan to further evaluate the impact of these chemicals on
childhood obesity. "While the data are significant, more research is
needed to definitively determine whether phthalate exposure causes
increases in body size," she said.