Researchers found children in New York's East Harlem are three times more likely than other children in the US to be overweight, and they said that high levels of the packaging chemicals found in the children's urine may play a role in obesity by disrupting hormones that regulate growth and development.
The phthalates findings were part of two long-term health research projects on children who live in East Harlem and surrounding communities.
The Mount Sinai team explained that one project focused on 400 girls in the community, with the results showing that the heaviest girls had the highest levels of phthalates metabolites in their urine.
The other project, entitled Growing up Healthy in East Harlem, studied the diet and other contributory factors of 520 East Harlem children aged 6-8 years and the results also show that the levels of phthalates measured in the participants was higher than the national US average, claim the researchers.
They said that their research adds to the growing body of scientific evidence linking phthalates to health problems and may encourage food packagers to search for alternatives.
Previous scientific studies on humans have found that these chemicals are associated with abdominal obesity, insulin resistance and poor semen quality in adult males as well as subtle changes in the reproductive organs in baby boys.
The phthalate family of chemicals is used in a variety of products from cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, lotions, lubricants, paint, pesticides, and plastics.
Phthalates are primarily used as plasticizers in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyvinyliden chloride (PVDC) polymers to increase their flexibility.
Di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) is perhaps the most thoroughly studied among the phthalates, and has long been used to produce highly flexible versions of PVC and PVDC polymers for a variety of applications, such as in flexible food packaging film.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it is conducting ongoing research into the potential health risk posed by exposure to phthalates.
However, the agency notes that while toxic and carcinogenic effects of DEHP have been demonstrated in laboratory animals, “there are no studies in humans that are adequate to serve as the basis for regulatory decision-making,”
Other food packaging chemicals that are causing anxiety among consumers are Bisphenol A (BPA) and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
A recent US study found that PFCs, which are found in grease-resistant packaging such as microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes, may be linked to infertility in women, while various global studies have indicated that BPA in infant formula cans and bottles could be harmful to infants.