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Plastics chemical linked to child obesity

26th June 2012

A chemical found in plastics is believed to have an effect on the metabolism of fat, and may be linked to growing obesity in children, new research has found.

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Phthalates are found in the plastics that children's toys and dummies are typically made of, and the research has found that one form of phthalate in particular may be linked to higher rates of obesity in children.

Known as di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), the chemical is suspected of being able to alter the way the body metabolises fat.

Researchers in South Korea found that the children in their study with the highest DEHP levels were nearly five times more likely to be obese than those who had the lowest DEHP levels.

According to professor Mi-Jung Park, a paediatric endocrinologist at Inje University College of Medicine in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the chemical could trigger a hormone regarded as the master regulator of fat creation and lipid metabolism.

DEHP could affect the body in two ways, Park said, either by reducing the effect of the male sex hormone androgen which lowers BMI, or by disrupting thyroid function, which could affect weight gain.

A person's metabolism can be affected by the manipulation of androgen or the thyroid hormones.

Phthalates have been linked in previous studies to breast growth in boys, reproductive problems in men and low birth weight in newborns.

The researchers measured blood levels of DEHP in 204 children aged 6-13, 105 of whom were considered obese and 99 were of normal weight.

They found that the children with the higher DEHP levels were also the children with the highest BMI scores.

Daily calorie intake and level of physical activity was not linked to BMI among the children in the study.

The researchers will present their results at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in Houston, Texas at the weekend. Studies presented at conferences are considered preliminary, as they have not yet been submitted to a peer-reviewed, professional journal.

However, Park said her findings did not demonstrate a causal relationship between blood levels of DEHP and obesity.

Park said parents should be aware that phthalates are ubiquitous in modern life, and have been found in food, water, plastic bags and packaging, cosmetics, lotions, shampoo and toys.

She said that pregnant women, premature infants and young children may be particularly sensitive to the chemical.

She warned that putting hot food or water into a plastic container could be dangerous.

According to Johanna Congleton, senior scientist and toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, people should take precautionary measures to reduce their exposure to phthalates.

She called on consumer product manufacturers to phase out the use of such compounds.


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