Friday, January 20, 2012

Commonly used chemical increases risk of obesity

The use of chemicals known as phthalates in commonly used products such as plastics, medical devices, food processing and personal care products appear to cause weight gain in children. Despite their widespread use, it is not the first time possible health hazards for exposed children have been identified. Their tendency to increase weight in children is attributed to their capabilities of mimicking human hormones.

Scientists, working at Mount Sinai Medical Center, measured urine levels of phthalates in almost 400 children, all of them either black or hispanic for undisclosed reasons. Acquiring the amounts of phthalates in urine tells us something about the exposure: 'foreign' compounds that are taken up by the body are usually excreted by the kidney into the urine. After collecting the results, the scientists found that higher exposure to a particular kind of phthalate, called MEP, resulted in a 10 percent increase in childhood overweight one year later, when compared to children exposed to a low dose. Shockingly, 97 percent of the investigated children were exposed to phthalates, though in various doses.

Phthaletes are suspected to be harmful because they mimic molecular signals known as hormones. When a cell encounters the chemical, it thinks it has encountered a signal molecule with a specific function, and will alter its behaviour accordingly. Apparently, in the case of phthalates, it results in an increase of fat deposits, which in our current society is highly undesirable.

Other effects
Increasing the risk of obesity is not the only nasty side effect. Previous research has already shown that exposure to phthalates can lead to impaired development of the neurological network. That can cause big problems, because a properly functioning nervous system is paramount for basically every function in the body. Additionally, phthalates are associated with breast cancer, birth defects and premature onset of puberty.

The recent study by Mount Sinai Medial Center highlights the need to search for an alternative to phthalates. Because almost everyone is exposed to these frequently used chemicals, and the increase in proof we have for its health hazards, it seems much needed to ban their use. Future research aims to determine the actual impact phthalates have on weight gain.

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