Your milk bottle, shampoo bottle or even a child's toy could make you sick
You can’t see, smell, or taste them, but chances are phthalates – a common additive used in the manufacturing of everyday plastic items – may be in your in your kitchen cupboard, fridge, window seal or cosmetic cabinet.
But a new study now suggests that exposure to this plastic chemical may increase your risk of metabolic diseases, including diabetes and obesity.
Researchers from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia said higher exposure to phthalates – mostly found in milk containers, bottled water, instant coffee, make-up, shampoo and children’s toys – not only alter metabolism therefore increasing one's risk of type 2 diabetes, but have also been linked to liver damage.
Just like the notorious bisphenol-A (commonly known as BPA), which is used in hard plastics, phthalates, which are used in soft plastics including baby pacifiers and toys, can leach from plastic into food and liquid, directly into the mouth.
Animal studies have also associated phthalate exposure with kidney damage and with affecting the male and female reproductive systems, leading to decreased sperm activity and concentration, early puberty in females, and testicular cancer. Phthalates have been detected in humans, meat and dairy fast foods.
Professor Milica Medi Stojanoska, who presented the study at the European Society of Endocrinology annual meeting held in Lyon recently, said her team correlated the levels of pthalates absorbed by people with their body weight, type 2 diabetes incidence and markers of impaired liver and metabolic function. Higher exposure to phthalates was associated with increased markers of liver damage, insulin resistance and cholesterol in people with obesity and diabetes.
Prof Stojanoska said although this was a small association study, the latest findings suggested that “not only do phthalates alter metabolism to increase the risk of obesity and diabetes but that they are also causing toxic damage to the liver”.
A Cape Town endocrinologist, Dr Zane Stevens, who practices at the Christiaan Barnard Hospital said, “the latest study adds to our knowledge base on endocrine disrupters”.
Endocrine disrupters refer to chemicals that humans may be exposed to which impact on our endocrine or hormonal system.
“While this is obviously very important from a public health perspective, the difficulty with studies in this field is that they show us associations. They do not fully explain the mechanisms by which these chemicals cause disease. There are a number of endocrine disrupters that have been linked to obesity. Obesity, the biggest risk factor for type 2 diabetes, has nearly tripled since 1975 globally and thus understanding the drivers of this is important,” he said.
Prof Stojanoska said there was a need to inform people about the potential adverse effects of endoctrine disruptors on their health.
Her research is now looking at the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on human health in adults, adolescents and babies.
"We need to inform people about the potential adverse effects of endocrine disruptors on their health and look at ways to minimise our contact with these harmful chemicals,” she said.
Some of the ways to reduce exposure to phthalates include using glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for food and beverages, especially when they're heated. Avoiding warming food with plastic containers, and using “phthalate-free” products also minimise exposure to phthalates.