Women may be at higher risk of developing diabetes because of phthalates that exist in such personal care products as soaps, hair sprays, moisturizers, nail polish, and even perfume. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital published a report in Environmental Health Perspectives explaining that the higher concentrations of phthalate metabolites in the urine of females compared to males might mean that women have a higher risk of developing diabetes.

Tamara James-Todd, Ph.D. and team explained that although prior studies had detected higher urinary concentrations of phthalate metabolites in women, very few had looked into what the link between phthalate metabolites and diabetes and diabetes-related risk factors might be.

Dr. James-Todd and team set out to determine whether there is an association between phthalate metabolite concentrations in urine and diabetes in adult females. They gathered data from the CDC and self reported accounts of diabetes diagnoses in 2,350 women aged between 20 and 80 years.

The researchers found that:

  • Overall, those with higher urine levels of phthalates had a higher risk of developing diabetes, compared to those with the lowest levels
  • Those with the highest levels of mono-benzyl phthalate and mono-isobutyl phthalate in their urine were twice as likely to develop diabetes, compared to the women with the lowest levels
  • Those with moderately high levels of di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate and mono-n-butyl phthalate had a 70% greater risk of developing diabetes, compared to the women with the lowest levels
  • Women with a higher-than-average level of mono- (3-carboxypropyl) phthalate had a 60% higher risk of developing diabetes compared to those with the lowest levels

The authors say that the women in their study were a “representative sample” of America’s female population. They factored in variables which could distort their findings, such as dietary habits, behavioral traits, and socio-demographic details.

In an Abstract in the same journal, the authors concluded:

“Urinary levels of several phthalates were associated with prevalent diabetes. Future prospective studies are needed to further explore these associations to determine whether phthalate exposure can alter glucose metabolism, and increase the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.”

Phthalates, also known as phthalate esters, belong to a group of man-made chemicals which are similar to organic acid. Phthalates are widely used in plastics, especially PCV (polyvinyl chloride), where they are used to soften the PVC. In the European Union, Canada and the USA, phthalates are being phased out in many products because of serious health hazard concerns.

Phthalates are used in:

  • Binders
  • Building materials
  • Detergents
  • Dispersants
  • Electronics
  • Emulsifying agents
  • Film formers
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Lubricants
  • Many food products
  • Medical devices
  • Packaging
  • Paints
  • Personal care products
  • Printing inks
  • Stabilizers
  • Suspending agents
  • Textiles
  • To coat some pharmaceutical pills and nutritional supplements
  • Toys
  • Viscosity control agents

Humans are commonly exposed to phthalates. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), most Americans that have been tested have phthalate metabolites in their urine.

In animal experiments, rats with high phthalate doses were found to have disruptions in their hormone levels, as well as birth defects in their offspring.

Researchers from the Children’s Environmental Health Center at The Mount Sinai Medical Center found a link between obesity in young children and exposure to phthalates. (Link to article)

Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center found in a pilot study that young boys whose mothers had high phthalate urine levels when they were pregnant were less likely to “play like boys” – engage in boyish banter, play fighting, and use masculine toys. (Link to article)

Phthalate concentrations were found in infants’ urine by researchers from the CDC in Atlanta and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. The investigators said phthalates are widely used in baby care products, such as lotion, talc and shampoo. (Link to article)

A Finnish study found a link between phthalates and diabetes risk among elderly people; even when circulating phthalate levels were only moderately elevated their risk doubled. (Link to article)

At Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, scientists found “prenatal exposure to phthalates may adversely affect child mental, motor and behavioral development during the preschool years”. (Link to article)

Scientists from the University of Michigan, in a large-scale study, confirmed a link between phthalate and BPA concentrations and thyroid hormone levels. Thyroid hormones play a key role in reproduction, metabolism, energy balance and other body functions. (Link to article)

Written by Christian Nordqvist