How About Those Phthalates?


The obesity epidemic continues to thrive, and studies suggest that we do massive damage to ourselves by filling the environment with phthalates. They are in cosmetics, fingernail polish, perfume, lotions, shampoo, self-tanning potions, soap, and in the coatings of pharmaceutical and nutritional pills.

They are in toys and even in baby pacifiers. They are in all sorts of cleaning products, scented candles, and air fresheners. They are in flooring, wall coverings, and varnishes. They are used in food processing and packaging. Phthalate molecules are found in the water and in the air, and there is no escaping them, but we can at least make a conscientious effort not to absorb any more of them than the absolute minimum.

But why do so many anxious worriers want to avoid phthalates? A lot of evidence points to these chemicals being endocrine disruptors. Their presence is associated with allergies, asthma, type 2 diabetes, some kinds of cancer, and obesity.

As we have already noted, obesity is well known to occur in the same children who suffer from asthma and allergies, and of course the link between obesity and diabetes is well established. All in all, there is good reason to suspect that phthalates could be the root cause of all these things.

The BBP menace

It appears that the presence of these chemicals in the body can tip the epigenetic balance of stem cells toward adipogenesis. A good case can be made for their agency in fat formation. In fact, researchers at Texas A&M Health Science Center found that exposure to one particular substance, benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), probably influences lipid accumulation and fat storage in a fetus by altering the epigenome of stem cells.

Journalist Bailey Kirkpatrick phrases the process in technical language:

An epigenetic balance between histone acetylation and histone methylationin mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) can dictate whether the stem cells are destined to be fat cells, known as adipocytes, or cells that help form new bone, known as osteoblasts. Hypoacetylation and hyperacetylation has been shown to favor osteoblast formation, but any disruption of this balance could lead to unwanted consequences. In their study, they discovered that “BBP increased acetylation and decreased dimethylation of lysine 9 on histone 3” which tipped the balance “towards an adipogenic fate.”

As if fast food did not already have a bad enough reputation, its processing and packaging adds phthalates, which are found in significantly higher levels in the bodies of habitual fast food consumers. Scientists have found a strong correlation between the chemical DEHP and diabetes, and also allergies, and elevated BMI measurements.

Roberto A. Ferdman reported on pertinent work done at the Mount Sinai Medical Center:

Researchers working on this study measured phthalate concentrations in the urine of 387 children plus recorded body measurements including BMI, height, and waist circumference one year later. Children exposed to the highest concentrations of chemicals also had larger BMI results and larger waist circumference results.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Could Common Chemicals Tip the Epigenetic Balance and Program Someone for Obesity?,”, 05/24/16
Source: “Researchers have found a ‘striking’ new side effect from eating fast food,”, 04/15/16
Photo credit: David Goehring (CarbonNYC [in SF!]) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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