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The everyday household products linked to asthma risk

Press Release   •   Sep 22, 2014 10:29 BST

Dangerous chemicals contained in many household items may be linked to a surge in asthma cases in children, researchers are warning.

The chemicals in question – butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) – are compounds known as phthalates and are used to soften plastic.  Phthalates are found in a wide variety of things from perfume to plastic food containers, insect repellent, shower curtains, vinyl flooring and are even used in vehicles (steering wheels and dashboards).

Phthalates have been given a ban within the EU from children’s toys and cosmetics, however as the chemicals have been found to raise the risk of health problems, such as asthma, from 2015 they could be routinely banned altogether.

And now a New York study discovered that children who were born to mothers an elevated level of exposure to the two chemicals were at a staggering 72 to 78% higher risk of developing the lung condition asthma during the ages of five and 11, compared with children whose mothers had lower levels of exposure.

The study has been published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, and found that children born to women with the highest levels of phthalate were 72% more likely to get asthma compared to those with low levels, whilst the risk was 78% for di-n-butyl phthalate.

The researchers involved in the study believe the chemicals may be sensitising the foetuses’ airways, thus causing more susceptibility to asthma in their childhood years.

The idea for the study was formulated a number of years ago after Columbia University researcher Robin Whyatt and her colleagues at the Mailman School of Public Health were noting that inner-city kids living in New York had amongst the highest rates of asthma in the world – almost a quarter have the condition.

Therefore, the team wanted to see which environmental factors were worsening the asthma incidence within children, and started their research with 300 pregnant women so the development from in the womb to late childhood could be tracked.

Since the beginning of the study the results have been published on a regular basis, highlighting any correlation between a child’s respiratory and neurological problem, and a particular environmental issue such as exposure to phthalates or exposure to other things like insecticide and pesticide residues.

Lead author Robin Whyatt, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, at Columbia, said: “Everyone from parents to policymakers is concerned by the steep rise in the number of children who develop asthma. Our goal is to try and uncover causes of this epidemic so we can better protect young children from this debilitating condition. Our study presents evidence that these two phthalates are among a range of known risk factors for asthma.”

Professor Whyatt, speaking about the two chemicals featured in the study, said: “These chemicals are very widely used in very high volume and they are not generally listed on labels. There are some simple steps families can take. Avoid using plastic containers and as much as you can store your food in glass jars in the fridge. Never microwave in plastic. It is also worth considering cutting back on using any scented products – cosmetics, perfumes, air fresheners and detergents.”

She advised women to use the internet to see if their make-up contains for phthalates, and warned that other risk factors for the onset of asthma during childhood include tobacco smoke, air pollution, obesity, and a history of allergies.


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