photo of perfume spray
Synthetic fragrances are a major source of exposure to hormone-disrupting phthalates

High levels of phthalates raise the risk for type-2 diabetes

16 April, 2012

Natural Health News — New data shows there is a connection between phthalates found in cosmetics and plastics and the risk of developing diabetes among seniors.

Writing in the journal Diabetes Care researchers at Uppsala University, in Sweden, show that even with a modest increase in circulating phthalate levels, the risk of diabetes is doubled.

“Although our results need to be confirmed in more studies, they do support the hypothesis that certain environmental chemicals can contribute to the development of diabetes,” says lead researcher Monica Lind, associate professor of environmental medicine at the Section for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Uppsala University.

Lind’s study analysed new information from the so-called PIVUS (Prospective Investigation of the Vasculature in Uppsala Seniors) study, which involves more than 1 000 70-year-old Swedish women and men.

Widespread exposure

In a physical examination participants were checked for fasting blood sugar and various insulin measures. They also submitted blood samples for analysis of various environmental toxins, including several substances formed when the body breaks down so-called phthalates. Today most people come into daily contact with phthalates because they are used as carriers of perfumes in cosmetics and self-care products. They are also used as softening agents in plastics so found in toys and, perhaps most relevant for seniors, medical devices and intravenous tubing, as well as in some pharmaceuticals where they are used to create ‘enteric’ coatings.

As expected, diabetes was more common among participants who were overweight and had high blood lipids (fats).  This is because phthalates are what is known as ‘chemical calories fat-loving hormone disrupting substances that are linked to weight gain.

Double the risk

But the researchers also found a connection between blood levels of some of the phthalates and increased prevalence of diabetes, even after adjusting for obesity, blood lipids, smoking, and exercise habits. Individuals with elevated phthalate levels had roughly twice the risk of developing diabetes compared with those with lower levels. They also found that certain phthalates were associated with disrupted insulin production in the pancreas.

Infants are generally considered to be most vulnerable from exposure to phthaltes because they are so small (and therefore their exposure is proportionally greater) and because their bodies are changing so rapidly. Evidence shows that babies are exposed to high levels of phthalates from toiletries such as lotions and shampoos. But there has been very little research into the effects of phthalate exposure on older people.

To find out whether phthalates truly are risk factors for diabetes, further studies are needed that show similar associations. To date, besides the present study, there is only one small study of Mexican women.

For an interesting summary of the environmental factors influencing diabetes see here.