RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If your body is a ship, then your brain is the captain. Which makes the thyroid—a small, vital, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck—your first mate. It plays an integral part in running virtually all operations, from regulating your metabolism to keeping your hormones in check. In short, this is one crew member that needs to stay shipshape.
But new research suggests that phthalates (pronounced "tha-lates"), chemicals that are commonly used in pesticides, plastics, cleaners, and other household products, are altering the thyroid's ability to work properly. In the study, published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that phthalates may also be stunting the growth of children.
THE DETAILS: Among 850 Danish children ages 4 to 9, researchers measured phthalate levels as well as blood levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone, thyroid hormones, and insulinlike growth factor. They also measured the kids' body sizes. All of the children had some level of phthalate contamination, but researchers found that the kids with the highest phthalate levels tended to have the lowest thyroid hormone levels. High phthalate levels were also associated with shorter and lighter body size. The mechanism behind these findings is still unclear.
WHAT IT MEANS: Phthalates break down and exit our bodies pretty quickly. So something ingested, inhaled, or absorbed today (for instance, from pesticides in food, roach spray, or a scented lotion) will be out of your system in a day or two. The problem is we're constantly being exposed to them. "We're taking them in as fast as our bodies can break them down," explains Sarah Jannsen, MD, PhD, senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council.
That’s no exaggeration, as phthalates are found in fake leather furniture, vinyl building materials, and the artificially scented cleaners, shampoos, hairsprays, soaps, candles, and air fresheners we're exposed to every day. Brand-new research finds phthalates are even in our food, possibly because of pesticide use, or from the plastic tubes, plastic containers, and adhesives that food comes into contact with during processing and storage.