Two new peer-reviewed studies published over the past few months are calling attention to the potential link between exposure to phthalates and diabetes, a disease that affects 25.8 million Americans or 8.3% of the US population. Over 90% of all phthalates are used to soften vinyl, such as vinyl school supplies and flooring.
The most recent study, led by researchers at Harvard, found phthalates linked to higher rates of diabetes in women. This comes at a time when the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes doubled from 1980 to 2010 in women.
They found that the diabetes rate was double for women with the highest levels of phthalates in their bodies, even after accounting for sociodemographic, behavioral, and dietary factors. Phthalates were also linked to higher blood glucose levels and insulin resistance, two common precursors of type 2 diabetes. In a story published by Environmental Health News, Richard Stahlhut, an environmental health researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center who co-authored the study, noted:
“These findings are important clues, but it’s only a first step…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.”
The story notes that African Americans have a 19 percent chance of developing diabetes – a rate 77 percent higher than that of whites – and Hispanics have a 66 percent higher rate than whites. The story also notes that, “Poor women had up to 78 percent higher levels of BBP – the phthalate in vinyl flooring that was associated with a double rate of diabetes – than women living above poverty level.”
Another study published in April by the American Diabetes Association found that people with higher phthalates in their bodies had about twice the risk of diabetes as those with lower levels. Another study published last year also found a link between phthalate exposure and diabetes.
Dioxin and Diabetes
Phthalates aren’t the only vinyl chemicals that may be associated with diabetes.
The production and disposal of vinyl plastic, like the roofing and flooring in our children’s schools, is a major source of dioxin. A number of studies published over the years have linked dioxin exposure to diabetes.
For instance, author and scientist Pete Myers published a synopsis of a study a few years ago and stated that,
“A large new epidemiological study in Japan finds that even at background levels of exposure, people with higher levels of dioxin and dioxin-like PCBs are a significantly greater risk to metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes… Using a method to assess total exposure to this family of chemicals, they found that the people most exposed were over five times more likely to suffer from the health condition. Looking at some of the chemicals one-at-a-time, they found that some, by themselves, had an even stronger relationship, as high as 8 to 9 times more likely.”
This is of great cause for concern given how widespread this disease is. Diabetes is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, and is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. It is also the leading cause of kidney failure, nontraumatic lower- limb amputations, and new cases of blindness among adults in the United States.
Over time, I expect the evidence will only continue to mount linking dioxin and phthalates to these and numerous other health problems.
The question is: how much more do we need to know before we act?