Phthalates: The Next Big Public Health Issue?

The number of Americans suffering with type two diabetes has doubled in the last three decades. The Brigham and women’s hospital have researched a link between certain modern chemical product constituents and this disease. Of course, overeating and under exercising are two of the big factors causing the epidemic of diabetes but these chemicals may also need to be avoided. The chemicals at issue are phthalates and are used in the manufacture of all soft plastic wrappings, a lot of perfumes and cosmetics.

Do Phthalates Cause Diabetes?

The Brigham study is one of several that found a significant correlation between high phthalate levels and susceptibility to diabetes. Researchers are unable to confirm a cause and effect relationship between the two factors because the chemical measurements were taken only after the patients involved in the study were diagnosed with the disease.

[box type=”important”]The medical data from 2,350 female adults, right across the age spectrum, was studied and the level of phthalates in the urine samples of some, showed that they were twice as likely to contract diabetes than those with lower levels.[/box]

Nearly 1 in 10 of the women with high levels of one particular phthalate called mono-isobutyl phthalate had diabetes compared to 1 in 20 of the women with low levels. However, it may be an assumption to say that the chemical caused the diabetes. Because phthalates are ubiquitous in medical tube packs, intravenous bags and a number of other medications, it may be that the diabetes caused the high levels through the use of more medications and more medical treatments.

More research is needed, especially longitudinal studies over time, to nail down whether a build-up of the phthalates actually leads to obesity and hence type two diabetes. These chemicals are known to be disruptive to the endocrine system of glands within the human body. They latch on to cells and change the release of hormones such as insulin and estrogen. A phthalate expert and member of the Brigham team makes a good point about the importance of further research, “This study certainly has important public health implications. It adds support to the claim that phthalate exposure is associated with metabolic diseases in humans, including insulin resistance and diabetes.”

Phthalates in Urine

It is estimated that 3 out of every four Americans have some level of phthalates in their urine, but it cannot yet be said how much of an effect or even that they have an effect at all on the rate of growth of diabetes numbers. As things stand it is almost impossible to avoid these chemicals because they are part of most things from nail varnish to deodorants and of course plastic packages.

[box type=”note”]So while a product can truthfully claim to be phthalate-free, the chemicals can still transfer from packaging into it. If the link with diabetes type 2 does turn out to be causative the big issues are what substitutes can be found and whether the Food and Drug Administration should legislate to limit the use of phthalates.[/box]


  1. Article abstract:  Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Diabetes
  2. Phthalates in Your Flip Flops
  3. The End of Man


Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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