Staggering Asthma in Children Risk Linked to Phthalate Exposure

childhood asthma photo

Researchers at Columbia University wondered why kids in New York City had among the highest rates of asthma in children worldwide, so as part of a recent study they looked at a cohort of 300 pregnant women from the area. Moms-to-be and kids up through late childhood were studied to try and uncover the cause of their increased risk for asthma conditions.

The findings were quite staggering. Robin Whyatt and her team at the Mailman School of Public Health wanted to know whether respiratory and neurological issues among the children could be tied to environmental toxins like phthalates. They found that those exposed to high levels of phthalates both in the womb and in childhood, were 70 percent more likely to develop childhood asthma, as reported in The Guardian.

“We go through these cycles in chemistry where we realize one chemical is bad and so we phase it out, and then another one crops up,” says green chemist Bruce Akers, who works with a variety of cosmetics companies, reported in The Guardian. “Ten to 15 years ago it was parabens, and it’s looking like now it’s phthalates.”

For those that have already phased out parabens, phthalates should be next considering all the negative studies piling up. Phthalates are a chemical binder found in household cleaners, personal care products, pesticides, and food packaging.

I recently wrote that pregnant women with the highest phthalate levels in their urine had kids with markedly lower than average IQs by age 7. Researchers aren’t completely sure why or how phthalates impact the brain but a number of factors could be at play. Phthalates may disrupt the body’s hormones, which could impact brain development and may disrupt the neurotransmitter dopamine, linked to hyperactivity.

The findings regarding asthma in children looked at the most common phthalates: butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP), di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP).

“Asthma changes in adolescence – it’s more prevalent in boys prior to adolescence and in girls after, so you get some kids that grow out of it, some who begin exhibiting symptoms in adolescence, and some that have persistent asthma through childhood and into adolescence,” Whyat explained.

“Those who have asthma in adolescence are much more likely to have it for life, so for public health concerns it’s important to see if there’s a correlation between phthalate exposure and asthma into adolescence.”

Parabens are often easily marked on personal care products but products that are phthalate-free are a little more difficult to find but you can still find it on the label. Phthalates tend to hide in fragrance so choose products that are fragrance-free. Additionally, eat fresh foods as much as possible to avoid them in packaging. Avoid pesticides and clean with natural products like white vinegar and vodka. If you need some fragrance, add your own essential oils.

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Image: NIAID

Sara Novak
Sara Novak

Sara Novak is an independent journalist who reports on health, science, yoga, and travel. She was a writer for Discovery Communications from 2006-2013 and her work has been featured on Discovery Health, Popular Science, TLC, Animal Planet, What to Expect, TreeHugger, and many more. She’s also a certified yoga teacher. When she's not churning away on her laptop, she can be found atop her yoga mat or walking the beach with her husband, baby boy, and two lovable cocker spaniels.