Chemical Exposure Linked to Obesity in Children

Exposure to chemicals called phthalates is linked to the development of obesity in young children, researchers from the Children's Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York have found.

Exposure to chemicals called phthalates is linked to the development of obesity in young children, researchers from the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York have found.

Typically used in plastic food processing materials, medical devices, personal-care products, and flooring and wall coverings, phthalates are man-made, endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can imitate the body’s natural hormones.

The researchers measured the concentration of phthalate in the urine of 387 black and Hispanic children in New York City. One year later, they measured the participants’ body mass index (BMI), height, and waist circumference.

The urine tests showed that 97% of the participants had been exposed to phthalates, including monoethyl phthalate (MEP) and other low molecular-weight phthalates. In addition, higher concentrations of phthalates were connected to increased BMI and waist circumference in overweight children. BMI in overweight girls with the most elevated exposure to MEP was 10% higher than girls with the lowest levels of 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,” Susan Teitelbaum, PhD, associate professor in the department of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “This study also further emphasizes the importance of reducing exposure to these chemicals where possible.”

The investigators noted that further research is necessary. “While the data are significant, more research is needed to definitively determine whether phthalate exposure causes increases in body size,” Teitelbaum said.

The study was funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, the National Cancer Institute, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. It was published online earlier this month by Environmental Research.