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 Protection Agency.
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.”
Childhood Obesity Facts
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.
The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.
In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
Overweight is defined as having excess body weight for a particular height from fat, muscle, bone, water, or a combination of these factors. Obesity is defined as having excess body fat.
Overweight and obesity are the result of “caloric imbalance” - too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed - and are affected by various genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.
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.
Change family behaviors
Rather than singling out your child, encourage the whole family to make healthy lifestyle changes. Consider these helpful hints:
Start small. Gradual changes are easiest to incorporate into the daily routine - and to maintain long term. Start by making a few small changes, such as turning off the TV during dinner, switching from soda to skim milk or water, and taking a family walk after dinner once a week.
Set goals. Set realistic, measurable goals for each family member, and then determine family goals. For example, your child’s goal might be to eat fruit for afternoon snacks. Your goal might be to take a brisk walk three days a week. The family’s goal might be to limit fast-food meals to once a month.
Recognize triggers. Be prepared for situations that may tempt you to fall back to your old habits. If you’re used to eating popcorn at the movies, for example, bring only enough money for admission - or agree that you’ll share a small carton of popcorn with your child rather than ordering separate treats.
Celebrate success. Frequent rewards can help keep your family motivated. When your child meets a goal - by asking for fruit rather than cookies after school, for example - offer praise and attention. When your family meets a goal, brainstorm healthy ways to celebrate your success. You might try a family movie night, a weekend picnic or a trip to the pool.
Keep it positive. Focus on healthy lifestyle changes, rather than your child’s appearance or a number on the scale. Remember, treating childhood obesity isn’t a race. It takes time and dedication to replace established behaviors with new, healthier behaviors.
Be flexible. It’ll take time to get used to your healthier habits. Encourage everyone to stick to the plan - but if the goals aren’t working for your family, consider making adjustments. It’s better to create a new plan than to stick to one that isn’t working.
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.
About The Mount Sinai Medical Center
The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses both The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Established in 1968, Mount Sinai School of Medicine is one of the leading medical schools in the United States. The Medical School is noted for innovation in education, biomedical research, clinical care delivery, and local and global community service. It has more than 3,400 faculty in 32 departments and 14 research institutes, and ranks among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and by US News and World Report..
The Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is a 1,171-bed tertiary- and quaternary-care teaching facility and one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. In 2011, U.S. News and World Report ranked The Mount Sinai Hospital 16th on its elite Honor Roll of the nation’s top hospitals based on reputation, safety, and other patient-care factors. Of the top 20 hospitals in the United States, Mount Sinai is one of 12 integrated academic medical centers whose medical school ranks among the top 20 in NIH funding and US News and World Report and whose hospital is on the US News and World Report Honor Roll. Nearly 60,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients last year, and approximately 560,000 outpatient visits took place.