If you pack your child’s lunch in a plastic container, or often purchase ready-to-eat food packaged items for your young one, you may be exposing them to two potentially toxic everyday chemicals: DEHP (Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate) and BPA (bisphenol A). DEHP, a phthalate, is used as a "plasticizer" for everything from plastic bottles to plastic containers. BPA is a man-made synthetic compound used to make plastics — particularly hard plastic bottles — and has been in commercial use since 1957. Canadian and European Union regulators have banned BPA from use in baby bottles; in the U.S., public worry over the compound has led to it essentially being phased out of use in recent years.

While the long-term health effects of these two environmental toxic chemicals on humans is still currently under review by researchers in the U.S., two recent studies published in the same issue of the journal Pediatrics, suggest that exposure to DEHP and BPA could potentially increase your child's risk for serious diseases including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

DEHP And Insulin Resistance In Children

In a study led by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, researchers examined the nutritional and dietary habits of 766 adolescents aged between 12 to 19 years old for five years. Urine and blood tests were done to determine if environmental chemicals used in drink and food packaging were independent contributors to insulin resistance in teens.  Insulin resistance is when your body produces insulin but can’t use it effectively, according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). Sufferers of insulin resistance experience a buildup of glucose in the blood, which, if left untreated, can develop into type 2 diabetes.

There was no significant data found in the study that linked high urinary levels of DEHP as a risk factor for developing insulin resistance in childhood. For example, of those teens with the highest levels of DEHP, about 22 percent were insulin-resistant; on the other end of the spectrum, 15 percent of those with low DEHP levels were diagnosed as insulin resistant.

While the researchers of the study were not able to state that eating packaged food with phthalates directly causes insulin resistance, it found an association with the toxic environmental chemical. Transande told Reuters Health that DEHP may affect how the body secretes insulin in response to sugar. "Clearly unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity are the drivers of this epidemic … but increasingly environmental chemicals are being identified as possible contributors," he said.

BPA And Obesity In Children

Another study  published concurrently in the journal of Pediatrics analyzed nutrition survey data through 2010 to determine whether there was a connection between urinary BPA levels in adolescents aged six to 18 years old and risk for chronic diseases, like obesity. Dr. Joyce Lee from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and her colleagues divided 3,370 children into groups based on their levels of urinary BPA.

Overall, 18 percent of the children involved in the study would be considered obese by the CDC’s standards. However, 25 percent of children who were found to have the highest urinary BPA levels were seen to be treading a fine line between being overweight and obese, according to the researchers.

“Although the evidence about BPA and adverse health effects are not definitive, as a clinician, I do recommend that parents try to avoid BPA-containing plastics when possible to minimize their family's exposure," said Dr. Lee to Reuters Health. BPA, a chemical found everywhere — including plastics, canned goods, paper money and more — has also been affiliated with an increased risk of heart disease, Dr. Joseph Mercola writes on his website.

Should You Worry About DEHP And BPA Exposure?

While the results of this study do not show statistically significant data to prove a link between BPA and a higher risk for chronic diseases, it is enough to merit further investigation into the subject.

There is “little justification to assume that BPA has toxic exposure in the human, even with very high exposure in the diet,” wrote Dr. Robert L. Brent, professor of pediatrics, radiology and pathology at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, in an editorial that accompanied the study. His reasoning is based on the fact that the studies only look at urinary BPA levels for a single day, and not over time.

The bottom line, according to Dr. Brent, is that it appears that the type of food consumed has a much more significant effect on obesity and insulin resistance in children than does exposure to environmental chemicals. Brent suggests that the higher levels of BPA and DEHP in at-risk youth is not actually the cause of their likelihood for chronic disease; rather, it is simply an indicator that they are more likely to be eating the types high-sugar and high-sodium foods and drink that are known to increase the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. That is, these foods are typically pre-packaged in plastics that contain the chemicals.

Ways To Reduce DEHP And BPA Exposure For Your Child

The two lead authors of the study, Transande and Lee, offer their expert advice on ways parents can reduce environmental chemicals in their child’s diet.

  1. Avoid buying plastics made with DEHP.
  2. Avoid washing plastic containers in the dishwasher.  A plastic’s durability is associated with the exposure of toxic chemicals in your food. If a plastic is scratched or damage, it is best to throw it away because toxic chemicals can more easily leak into your food or drink once the plastic’s durability has altered.
  3. Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers because this can lead to environmental chemicals leaking into your food.
  4. Consider DEHP alternatives to food packaging, such as wax paper and aluminum foil.
  5. Eat fresh foods that aren’t canned or packaged. 

 

Sources:

Attina T.M., Blustein, J, Trasande L, et al. Urinary Phthalates and Increased Insulin Resistance in Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2013.

Brent R.L., Urine Chemical Content May Be A False Measure of Environmental Exposure. Pediatrics. 2013

Eng D, Lee J.M., Gebremariam, A, et al. Bisphenol A and Chronic Disease Risk Factors in US Children. Pediatrics. 2013.