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Food packaging chemical linked to chronic disease: SA study

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A common chemical used in food packaging, toys and medical devices is linked to chronic disease in men, according to an Adelaide study.

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The study of 1500 South Australian men found a link between several chronic diseases and phthalates – a group of chemicals used widely in consumer goods.

The results, which have been published in the international journal Environmental Research, detected phthalates in the urine samples of 99.6 per cent of men in the study aged 35 years and over.

“We found that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure increased among those men with higher total phthalate levels,” said the study’s senior author Associate Professor Zumin Shi.

Shi, from the University of Adelaide’s Adelaide School of Medicine and the Freemason’s Foundation Centre for Men’s Health, and a member of SAHMRI’s Nutrition & Metabolism theme, said the study adjusted for subjects who were overweight and obese – and it still pointed to phthalates as a link to disease.

“In addition, when we adjusted for socio-economic and lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol, the association between high levels of phthalates and disease was unchanged,” he said.

Shi told InDaily that the increase in risk was significant.

“If we compare the highest quota with the lowest quota of phthalates, the increase is around 80 per cent for cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” he said. “It’s 15 per cent for hypertension.”

However, the specific mechanisms behind the link are still unclear.

“While we still don’t understand the exact reasons why phthalates are independently linked to disease, we do know the chemicals impact on the human endocrine system, which controls hormone release that regulate the body’s growth, metabolism, and sexual development and function,” he said.

“In addition to chronic diseases, higher phthalate levels were associated with increased levels of a range of inflammatory biomarkers in the body.”

Previous studies showed that men who ate less fresh fruit and vegetables and more processed and packaged foods, and drank carbonated soft drinks, had higher levels of phthalates in their urine.

While the studies have been conducted on men, Shi said the findings were also likely to be relevant to women.

“While further research is required, reducing environmental phthalates exposure where possible, along with the adoption of healthier lifestyles, may help to reduce the risk of chronic disease,” he said.

Much of the focus on the safety of plastic packaging in Australia has been on another chemical – BPA or Bisphenol A.

Phthalates – a plastic softener – have been detected by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand in some foods, triggering more research by the food safety regulator.

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