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.