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Childhood asthma found to be associated with prenatal phthalate exposure

Childhood asthma

(NaturalNews) Children exposed to certain varieties of phthalates in the womb were nearly 80 percent more likely to develop asthma, according to a study conducted by researchers from Columbia University, Harvard University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

"Everyone from parents to policymakers is concerned by the steep rise in the number of children who develop asthma," first author Dr. Robin Whyatt said. "Our goal is to try and uncover causes of this epidemic so we can better protect young children from this debilitating condition."

Phthalates are a class of chemicals widely used in a variety of industrial and consumer products including plastics, vinyl flooring, insect repellents and even the "new car" smell that off-gasses from steering wheels and dashboards. Numerous studies have implicated phthalates as endocrine disruptors with the potential to cause severe health problems.

Many phthalates, including those examined in the new study, have been banned from children's toys and products over these health concerns. Yet in the United States, most phthalate-containing products are not required to disclose them as ingredients.

Risk increased nearly 80 percent

The study was conducted on 300 pregnant women and their children living in New York City. Urine samples were collected from the mothers during the third trimester of pregnancy and from the children at the ages of three, five and seven. The samples were tested for levels of four different phthalates. All but one of the urine samples taken contained metabolites of all four phthalates, in concentrations as high as 550 ng/mL.

Over the course of the study, about a third of the children (94) were diagnosed with asthma, while another 60 children showed wheezing or other symptoms of asthma but did not receive a formal diagnosis.

When the researchers compared the one-third of mothers with the highest phthalate exposure with the one-third that had the lowest, they found that exposure during pregnancy to the phthalates butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) led to a 72 percent greater risk of a child developing asthma by age 5, and a 78 percent greater chance of developing asthma by age 11.

"Our study presents evidence that these two phthalates are among a range of known risk factors for asthma," Dr. Whyatt said. Other risk factors include air pollution, tobacco smoke, a history of allergies, and obesity.

Exposure to the phthalates di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP) did not increase asthma risk, although they might have had other health effects (which were not tested for).

Evidence of risk mounts

A 2012 study by the same researchers had previously found that children exposed to DEP or BBzP were more likely to exhibit the airway inflammation characteristic of asthma. It also found that children exposed to BBzP in the womb were more likely to suffer from childhood eczema.

In another study, published in 2013, the researchers found that early childhood exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) -- another endocrine-disrupting chemical, unrelated to phthalates -- also increased the risk of asthma. In a more recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in August, they found that BPA exposure increased asthma risk far more in women who had also been exposed to BBzP during pregnancy.

"The fetus is extremely vulnerable during pregnancy. While it is incumbent on mothers to do everything they can to protect their child, they are virtually helpless when it comes to phthalates like BBzP and DnBP that are unavoidable," senior author Rachel Miller, MD, said. "If we want to protect children, we have to protect pregnant women."

The new study was unable to determine what the greatest sources of phthalate exposure were for children and pregnant women.

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