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Study links phthalates to elevated asthma risk in children

By Simon Pitman , 11-Sep-2012
Last updated on 11-Sep-2012 at 17:43 GMT

A study by scientists at the University of Columbia claims to link childhood asthma to phthalates that are found in personal care products and plastic packaging.

Scientists at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School have published a report in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which concentrates on exposure to diethyl phthalate (DEP) and butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP).

However, although DEP is widely used in a range of personal care and cosmetics products, particularly nail varnishes and fragrances, BBzP is far less commonly used in such formulations.

The report finds that in a survey of 244 children aged between 5 to 9, those individuals that were exposed to these two chemicals had an elevated risk of asthma-related airway inflammation.

Varying amounts of detectable phthalates

The report highlights the fact that of the 244 children that participated in the study, all had ‘detectable levels of phthalates in their urine, although it does all point out that there were wide variations in the amounts that were detected.

The evidence pointed to the fact that the children with the high levels of both phthalates were linked with higher levels in nitric oxide in tested breath inhalations, which is a biological marker of airway inflammation and often a precursor to asthma.

The study is the first that used exhaled nitric acid to test on phthalates exposure in children, the scientists claim.

Study underlines inhalation of phthalates

Although phthalates are thought to be absorbed by the body through ingestion and absorption by the skin, the scientists underline in their study that they believe inhalation of the chemicals is thought to be a particularly important route of exposure for the two phthalates considered in the study.

"While many factors contribute to childhood asthma, our study shows that exposure to phthalates may play a significant role," said Allan Just, PhD, lead study author and current postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In recent years and particularly in the past year, there have been a number of other studies that have also linked phthalates in children, including a higher level of type-2 diabetes, obesity and even disruptive behavior.

However, the industry has been quick to defend the use of phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products in North America, with the Personal Care Products Council consistently underlining the fact that products containing phthalates are safe.

Likewise, the organization has also been stressed that the only phthalate that is commonly used in cosmetic and personal care products in the United States is DEP, not BBzP, stressing the fact that FDA does not deem phthalates in cosmetics to pose any significant risk.

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