Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Plastic chemical linked to eczema in young children

Researchers at Columbia University in New York City have released a study showing a connection between a chemical commonly used in plastic household products and the risk that a young child will develop eczema. [press release] [paper] The work was widely covered in the media, including Fox News, which used a rather odd photo.

No, it's not BPA. It's benzylbutylphthalate (BBzP)--good luck pronouncing that--a component that seems to be found mostly in vinyl flooring, but which makes its way into dust, and thence into the body. However, the dominant source of BBzP is food, say the authors of the study, which was led by Allan Just at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health.

BBzP is one of a class of compounds used to make plastics flexible. Scientists have little idea how it might interact with the skin and immune system.

For this study, the scientists took urine samples from pregnant women in the third trimester. Then, after the children were born, the mothers filled out questionnaires at regular intervals, noting whether their kids had had recurrent rashes or had a medical diagnosis of eczema.

The results, from a cohort of 407 women, showed that the chances of children developing eczema were positively correlated with the mother's prenatal BBzP concentration in the urine. The data makes it hard to give a simple number, but higher BBzP clearly means greater risk.

The pattern was similar for African-Americans and Dominicans, the two main ethnic groups represented in the study.

The scientists originally thought BBzP might increase the incidence or strength of allergies, but did not find that to be true in this work.

It's unclear what one can do about the issue, if the science is true. You don't have much control over your environment, especially if you live in an urban apartment, as virtually everyone does in NYC. And BBzP is only one of many factors, including genetics, gut flora, geographic location, diet, and parental smoking, thought to increase the risk of eczema.

Also, it seems that this problem, at least increasingly in the future, will be limited to the United States, since, as with BPA, Europe and Canada have recognized the toxic properties of BBzP and limited its use. The American Chemistry Council has most likely lobbied for BBzP’s continued use.


  1. Great post. I'm glad you pointed out that eczema doesn't have one cause. There's no "smoking bullet" in a singular case or amongst all cases. Like most medical conditions, there are various factors which may all contribute to a condition.

  2. Thanks, AG!

    I know, it seems like there's an endless series of this kind of study, showing that some new factor increases the risk of kids getting eczema. But usually the odds aren't that much higher, and the factor isn't something that we can control.

    I find one of the most frustrating aspects of eczema and atopy is the irreversible progress. It seems like your environment, diet, etc. in the first few years of life--stuff no child and few parents can control--has a big influence on whether you'll suffer from eczema all your life. You can't go back and change the past.

  3. Hi SK!

    I recently discovered your blog and I must say, your writing has brought me out of a pretty dark place! I was getting pretty hopeless about my skin, and even though there's still no miracle cure for eczema, it's nice to know that there are people trying to get to the bottom of it. It's also nice to know that there are more people who share my affliction.

    This article illustrates one of the most maddening things about eczema, that there is so much speculation as to what can cause it! My wife and I are currently expecting our first child in October, and I'm almost holding my breath waiting to see if the child will inherit my eczema and allergies or if he'll have my wife's perfect skin.

    Anyway, keep up the good work! I know you're helping me, and you're probably helping lots of others as well with your writing and research.

  4. Wow, Guvnah, thank you so much.

    I have been in that dark place and may someday be there again. But I find that writing this blog is a form of therapy--I get to explore the limits of what we know about eczema and learn about brilliant, hardworking people searching for better ways to treat it.

    Eczema genetics is as weird and random as the disease itself. In my family it entirely skipped my parents' generation and landed on mine. And neither of my own two kids has shown signs of getting it as bad as I had it. I sincerely hope your child is spared.

  5. This has been my nightmare since I was 3, I guess, and progressively worsened and am now 43, Not "comfortable in my own skin", this Chinese torture should be resolved if we can cure cancer, no less. How 'bout dermatologists increase their 'give-a-shit-level' to do something beyond cosmetic!!!!!..We can only hope!!! Thank-you in advance. Michele Thomas (victom)

    P.S. Prednisone, Benedryl, Atarax, Hydrocortisone(s), Dermarest...blah, blah, blah...