A new study has found a link between two types of phthalates in personal-care products and asthma in children.
Conducted by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health in New York, the study found that all of the 244 children between the ages of 5 and 9 had detectible levels of phthalates in their urine. Those levels were associated with high levels of nitric oxide in their exhaled breath, a biological marker of airway inflammation, reports Plastics News. In addition to having detectible levels of phthalates in their urine, the children also had higher levels of diethyl phthalate and butylbenzyl phthalate, the researchers noted.
The children who had recently reported suffering from wheeze, a common symptom of asthma, had a particularly strong association between their phthalate levels and airway inflammation, the researchers found. “While many factors contribute to childhood asthma, our study shows that exposure to phthalates may play a significant role,” says Allan Just, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the report.
The Columbia study was the first to use exhaled nitric oxide as a marker for detecting phthalate exposure in children. Phthalates have been linked with other health problems, including child obesity and diabetes.
The Columbia study did not name the type of products with phthalates the children in the study were exposed to. The children all came from northern Manhattan and the south Bronx, where asthma prevalence is high.
“Many asthma patients only have asthma exacerbations a few times a year, making it difficult to discern short-term associations between environmental exposures and the disease,” says Matthew Perzanowski, senior author of the report and associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. “To solve this problem, we used nitric oxide, which has been shown to be a reliable marker of airway inflammation in response to known asthma triggers like vehicle emissions.”
The study has its critics. “The study by the Columbia Center should be interpreted with great caution,” says Steve Risotto, senior director of the phthalates ester panel at the American Chemistry Council in Washington. “The report is based on a single measurement of phthalate metabolite concentrations and fails to recognize that phthalates are broken down within hours and quickly eliminated from the body.”
Airway inflammation, on the other hand, might take days or weeks to manifest itself, Risotto adds. “Importantly the authors note that they found ‘no direct association’ between any of the phthalate metabolites and more traditional measures of asthma and allergy among the children tested,” he says.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.