Exposure to Phthalates (Plastics) Linked to Diabetes in Women

by Downwinders on July 31, 2012

Just last week we mentioned that one of the chemicals to look out for in burning plastics was phthalates – a class of widely-used chemicals that make plastic more plastic, i.e. more flexible. Phthalates are used in perfumes, cosmetics, and lots of household items made with Polyvinyl Chloride. This is how the stuff ends up in garbage, and how it can end up in your lungs when that garbage is burned at a cement kiln or power plant as "fuel" in the name of "recycling."

This isn't a theoretical problem. When Midlothian area residents began collecting their own air samples downwind of the local hazardous-waste burning cement plants in the 1990's, they often found significant levels of phthalates. 

From past research we know that exposure to phthalates in the womb can disrupt male hormones and have a range of health effects including feminizing male genitalia and reduced IQ.

And guess what? Ellis County rates of Hypospadias (a congenital birth defect in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside, rather than at the end, of the penis. are almost twice as high as for the state a a whole.

This week comes the news that Harvard scientists have linked phthalates to diabetes among women, and particularly to women of color in the Latino and Black communities who experienced the most exposure. Among these populations the risk of diabetes was double. The researchers cautioned that they don't yet know if phthalates actually cause the disease, but they seemed sure of an association.

“It’s extremely likely that phthalates and other chemical contaminants will turn out to be a big part of the obesity and diabetes epidemic, but at this point we really don't know how these chemicals are interacting with each other, or with the human body.”

Diabetes, an endocrine disease marked by problems with insulin production or insulin resistance, affects nearly 26 million Americans, or 11 percent of the population older than 20, according to CDC data. People of color already suffer disproportionally from the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, blacks have a diabetes rate 77 percent higher than that of whites, while Latinos have a 66 percent higher rate.

The Harvard study is at least the third in in two years to link phthalates to diabetes in women or adults in general.

“With phthalates, the story is really still emerging,” said Kristina Thayer, a researcher with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. “Studies like these are considered exploratory, but they seem to be consistent.” “More needs to be done to really fill in this question of potential causality, and the roles that specific phthalates may play,” she added.

But don't expect the Chemical industry, EPA, or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to be concerned about this lack of information on the health effects of phthalates exposure. Don't expect them to postpone decisions about burning garbage for fuel because of these gaps in knowledge. Allowing things to happen without fully accounting for all of their hazards is just another day at the office for them. If you want these things to happen, you're going to have to Do-It-Yourself.

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