Diabetes Self-Management Blog

We recently reported on research that strengthened the link between Type 2 diabetes and the common plasticizing chemical bisphenol A, or BPA. Now, a preliminary study has indicated an association between Type 2 and another common type of chemical known as phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates).

Phthalates are found in many personal care products, such as perfumes and other fragrances, self tanners, cosmetics, moisturizers, soaps, and hairsprays, in some food containers, in solid air fresheners and scented candles, and in products made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), such as shower curtains, automobiles, and some children’s toys. They primarily serve as solvents (substances in which other substances are dissolved) and as plastic softeners.

Studies have suggested that phthalates are endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormone-producing endocrine system (which includes the pancreas). Phthalates have been linked to a variety of health conditions, such as obesity, insulin resistance, fertility problems, asthma, and various types of cancer.

To determine whether circulating levels of phthalates in a person’s bloodstream are related to Type 2 diabetes, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden looked at 1,016 men and women age 70 years and older in the Prospective Investigation of the Vasculature in Uppsala Seniors Study. The participants were given physical examinations that checked their fasting plasma glucose levels, various insulin measures, and blood levels of phthalate metabolites, made when the body breaks down phthalates.

Not surprisingly, rates of Type 2 diabetes were higher in participants who were overweight and had high levels of blood fats. However, the researchers found that, even after adjusting for obesity, blood lipids, smoking, and exercise habits, there was a connection between blood levels of some of the phthalate metabolites and the prevalence of diabetes: People with high levels of phthatlates in their blood were found to have roughly twice the risk of developing diabetes, and certain phthalates were associated with impaired insulin production in the pancreas.

“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,” notes lead study author Monica Lind, associate professor of environmental medicine at Uppsala University.

What can you do if you’d like to avoid phthalates while further research looks into this matter? According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), some steps you can take are using personal care products that do not contain “fragrance” in the ingredient list (fragrances often contain the phthalate DEP), using nail polish and other beauty products that do not contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP) on the ingredient list, avoiding cooking or microwaving in plastic, using a non-vinyl shower curtain, and avoiding products made out of PVC. (See the EWG Web site for more information.)

To learn more, read the article “High Levels of Phthalates Can Lead to Greater Risk for Type 2 Diabetes” or see the study summary in the journal Diabetes Care.

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