Threatwatch: Disease may run amok while the CDC sleeps


Threatwatch is your early warning system for global dangers, from nuclear peril to deadly viral outbreaks. Debora MacKenzie highlights the threats to civilisation – and suggests solutions

“We are less safe.” So Tom Frieden, head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, announced on Twitter last week, as he prepared to send 8754 of his staff – two-thirds of the world’s biggest body of disease-watchers – home on furlough due to lack of government funding. It was part of the massive shutdown of US federal agencies in the wake of political intransigence in Congress over a budget.

“They protected you yesterday, can’t tomorrow. Microbes [and] other threats didn’t shut down,” Frieden added. But are we really less safe? And if so, how, exactly?

Obviously, this makes less difference if you live outside the US, but the uniquely global reach of the CDC affects us all in some ways. Even in the US, the effect may be subtle, because state governments have primary responsibility for public health. But they have always needed the CDC to marshal them in the face of any threat that crosses state lines – and sometimes even those that don’t.

Salmonella outbreak

That became clear earlier this week when CDC had to call back 10 of the people who run PulseNet, a computerised system for genetically tracking germs carried on food. US agriculture inspectors – deemed too important to furlough – had announced that chicken producers in California were the probable source of an outbreak of Salmonella that the CDC had been tracking since March, which has sickened 278 people in 18 states.

The affected states were tracking their own strains. But the PulseNet platform allowed the CDC to put the data together, and find that four of the seven strains of bacteria in the outbreak are novel, many have multiple resistance to antibiotics, and all came from chicken plants in California that have spread some of these bacteria before.

Nearly half the people infected have been hospitalised, twice the usual rate, suggesting these are nastier bugs than normal. Thankfully no one has died in the outbreak, though Salmonella can leave lifelong, debilitating after-effects.

Tuberculosis cluster

James Wilson of Ascel Bio, an epidemiological consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, believes the CDC should focus its limited resource on the tuberculosis cluster left by a Nevada woman who died, along with her twin babies, of the infection in July.

Of 200 people who had contact with the woman and have been tested, 26 were infected. Nevada state officials had asked the CDC for help testing 140 babies who shared intensive care with the twins, says Wilson. But because of the shutdown, that is now on hold.

So is an investigation of evidence, published this week, that the mosquito-borne virus dengue fever has been spreading unrecognised in Houston, Texas, since 2002. Dengue kills 25,000 people a year across the tropics. It had been absent from the US since the 1950s – but sporadic cases recently have crept back into the south.

It is especially dangerous when people encounter one strain, then another, as this can trigger a deadly immune reaction. Worryingly, the Houston strain is different from one seen in Florida in 2010, meaning encountering both might now be a possibility if they have spread along the Gulf coast. Finding out if they have will require intensive surveillance of people and mosquitoes across the southern US, says Peter Hotez, head of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Only the CDC can do that.

Global network

Outside the US, the CDC runs a network of 10 global disease-detection centres, of which eight are now closed. They are often the only modern epidemiology available in tropical countries where novel outbreaks could be brewing, such as the next flu pandemic, or something completely unexpected like MERS, the coronavirus that emerged in Saudi Arabia last year. The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is now under way, and the CDC would normally be first to help investigate any suspicious disease outbreaks in returning pilgrims across the world. But as long as the shutdown persists, it cannot.

The worst problem for the CDC, however, might turn out to be that nothing really severe happens while most of its staff are forbidden from coming to work.

Political ideologues committed to “small government” could claim that this shows that the world does not need a publicly funded agency like the CDC and its comprehensive disease monitoring and rapid-response capabilities. Yet as New Scientist has reported many times, rapid forms of travel, booming populations of humans and animals, ecological disruption and changing global climate add up to a myriad new disease threats waiting to happen. Electing to stop watching for them because of a political spat does not change that fact.

More than a THIRD of America’s highest-paid CEOs have been fired, fined or bailed out over the last 20 years

  • About 40 percent of American CEOs found  themselves in hot water over the past 20 years due to poor  performance
  • Though fired for their ineptitude, eight  per cent received ‘golden parachutes’ worth an average of  $48million

By  Ryan Gorman

PUBLISHED: 22:47 EST, 28  August 2013 |  UPDATED: 01:52 EST, 29 August 2013

A significant number of America’s  highest-paid chief executives have found themselves in hot water over the past  20 years, according to a new study.

Roughly 40 per cent of CEOs among the 25  highest-paid in the US have been fired, fined or bailed out, according to the  report released Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies. This finding  comes despite their astronomical pay – about 354 times the average – coming with  an expectation for sky-high performance.

Companies paying a premium for elite  talent  often do not realize the return they expect, the report says. In  at least one  instance, a CEO ended up with a conviction that would have  led to jail time had  he not died before sentencing.

Defiant to the end: Former Lehman Brothers Chairman and CEO Richard 'Dick' Fuld testifies to Congress about the firm's collapse 

Defiant to the end: Former Lehman Brothers Chairman and  CEO Richard ‘Dick’ Fuld testifies to Congress about the firm’s  collapse


The non-profit analyzed the 25 highest-paid  CEOs for the each of the past 20 years and found that almost half of them had  paid some sort of price for their poor performance.

Of the CEOs on the list, eight per cent  were fired, but received ‘golden  parachutes’ averaging $48million each upon their exit, according to the  report.

Of the fined, eight per cent ended up costing  their firm’s over $100million in fines each, with one CEO paying fines out of  pocket, for stock option back-dating, according to the report.

Most scandalously on the list are financial  executives, all of whom ‘were forced to receive bailouts for running their  companies into the ground,’ according to the report.

In fairness, financial industry CEOs didn’t  have much of a choice when it came to bailouts received though the Troubled Asset  Relief Program (TARP).  All large banks received TARP bailouts  whether they wanted/need them or not.

The most publicized of those was Lehman  CEO  Dick Fuld. While Fuld pocketed over $466million in compensation  between 2001  and 2007, according to Reuters, he reportedly contributed  to the once prestigious firm’s spectacular 2008 collapse.

Busted: Former Enron Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay was convicted of 10 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy, but died of a heart attack before sentencing 

Busted: Former Enron Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay was  convicted of 10 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy, but died of a heart  attack before sentencing


Even more notorious is Kenneth Lay. As Enron  CEO, Lay saw the firm rise to prominence on the back of predatory energy trading  and book cooking the likes of which was unprecedented in American  history.

While handsomely reaping the benefits of a  top 25 CEO, Lay oversaw the greatest corporate bankruptcy in American history,  prior to Lehman. Enron’s collapse put thousands out of work, wiped out the  pensions of many life-long employees and resulted in a Houston federal jury  finding the chief executive guilty in 10 counts of securities fraud and  conspiracy. Facing the rest of his life in prison, according to the New York Times, Lay died of a heart  attack before his sentencing.

The report suggests that reigning in CEO pay  is the only answer to this problem.

Reforms surrounding the disclosure of CEO to  worker pay ratio and pay restrictions on financial firm CEOs specified in  Dodd-Frank legislation still not yet implemented three years after President  Barack Obama signed the bill into law are suggested.

Another suggestion is closing the IRS   loophole that allows companies to deduct executive compensation from payroll  taxes, which the report calls a ‘outrageous.’

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Big 3 Accused of Price-Fixing for Fracking




HOUSTON (CN) – Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes used their 60 percent share of U.S. fracking services to fix and raise prices, a petroleum company claims in federal antitrust class action.

Cherry Canyon Resources accuses the three companies of jacking up the price for their fracking pressure pumping services, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into a well to break apart rock and release oil and gas.

Cherry Canyon claims the Justice Department said on July 25 that it “is investigating the possibility of anticompetitive practices involving pressure-pumping services performed on oil and gas wells.”

Halliburton and Baker Hughes acknowledged they are targets of the DOJ investigation even before the Justice Department announced it, according to the complaint.

“Schlumberger, the second largest provider of Fracking Pressure Pumping Services in the United States, on the other hand, gave no public comment on the investigation,” the complaint states.

The three defendants, all based in Houston, are known as the “Majors” in the industry because they dominate the U.S. market, and are the only companies that provide full-service fracking services throughout the United States, the complaint states.

Halliburton is the largest provider of fracking pressure pumping services in the United States with a 26 percent market share; Schlumberger and Baker Hughes are the second and third largest providers with 19 and 13 percent market shares, according to the complaint.

Cherry Canyon claims a spike in demand for fracking services in 2011 brought new “independent” companies into the field, and there are now about 100 of them.

“While the new entrants could not offer the breadth of services or geographic reach to compete with the Majors, the new entrants in the market, the independents, caused a temporary oversupply of Fracking Pressure Pumping Services,” the complaint states. “This temporary ‘disruption’ of the market (from defendants’ perspective) led to a modest decrease in prices and a modest decrease in defendants’ market share.” (Parentheses in complaint.)

In response, the Majors successfully “colluded to restrict and manipulate supply in order to increase prices and market share,” Cherry Canyon claims.

Cherry Canyon says it paid artificially high prices for the Majors’ fracking services due to the conspiracy.

It seeks treble damages for the class for antitrust violations under the Sherman Act and Clayton Act, and an injunction to stop the price fixing.

It is represented by Robert Hilliard with Hilliard Munoz Gonzales of Corpus Christi.


Genetic medicine hints at bloodletting and vitamins for astronauts


BLOODLETTING and vitamin pills are the future for astronaut health regimes. So hints a provocative proposal on the benefits of personalised gene-based medicine for space travellers.

Humans in space are at risk of a variety of ailments, from brittle bones caused by low gravity to cancer triggered by cosmic radiation. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) already take supplements to counteract ill effects, such as vitamin D for bone strength.

But when travelling further into space, such as to an asteroid or Mars, astronauts will be exposed to radiation doses close to NASA’s acceptable lifetime limits, upping their chances of developing illnesses from damaged DNA.

To reduce each individual’s risk, we should examine their genome and then design countermeasures to protect against any potential problems, say Michael Schmidt of MetaboLogics in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Thomas Goodwin of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in a forthcoming paper in Metabolomics.

The aim is not to weed out astronauts with deficiencies, but to ensure those who fly are in the best possible condition before they go to space, says Schmidt.

For example, certain gene mutations are known to reduce the stability of DNA, and this effect is amplified by a lack of folate. A person with the mutation could take folate supplements to protect against an increased risk of genetic damage from radiation exposure.

Reduced folate levels have also been linked to vision problems experienced by roughly a quarter of astronauts returning from the ISS. It is not yet clear whether the eye problems have a genetic component, but that is the kind of thing more focused research could reveal, says Schmidt.

Even a simple treatment like preflight bloodletting could prove useful when combined with genetic analysis, the pair say. People with a genetic mutation to build up iron in their bodies are at greater risk of radiation damage in space. An older male astronaut with the mutation will have built up high concentrations of iron over his lifetime (women are less at risk because they lose iron during menstruation). Bloodletting, along with an iron-restricted diet, could be an effective way to reduce this risk.

Genetic profiles can also help inform the types of drugs astronauts take into space, says Graham Scott of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He is looking at personalised medicine for Inspiration Mars, a private venture which plans to send humans on a fly-by of the Red Planet in 2018.

Roughly half of astronauts have experienced back pain during missions, which is treated in space with exercise and painkillers. But people with variants of the liver gene CYP2D6 can metabolise drugs such as the painkiller codeine too quickly, potentially leading to an overdose – and there is no hospital en route to Mars. Instead, if an astronaut is known to have this mutation they can be given a lower dose or an alternative treatment.

Jasper Rine of the University of California, Berkeley, says Schmidt and Goodwin’s proposal makes sense in principle, but we don’t yet know enough about gene variations to predict which astronauts will have gene-based health problems. And in the immediate future, he thinks deep-space pioneers will have bigger things to worry about. “Those with the courage to ride into space on a rocket built by the low bidder on a government contract face a wide range of risks,” says Rine.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Gene testing to help astronauts stay fit”


The Army’s obesity problem: By the numbers

*Repost at request
In 2007, 116 troops were dismissed for being out of shape. In the first 10 months of this year, that figure was a rather massive 1,625
By Samantha Rollins | December 11, 2012
Members of the U.S. Army at a food court: While these soldiers look rather fit, some of their colleagues are struggling to stay in shape.
Members of the U.S. Army at a food court: While these soldiers look rather fit, some of their colleagues are struggling to stay in shape.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When an entire nation has an obesity problem, it should be no surprise that its army will have one as well. These days, being “too fat to fight” is an increasingly common concern in the U.S. military. According to The Washington Post, obesity is now the leading cause of ineligibility among potential Army volunteers and current military personnel. Indeed, as pressure mounts for the Army to cut its budget, it has begun to dismiss troops who need to cut a few pounds. Here, a look at the Army’s weight problem, by the numbers:

Maximum weight, in pounds, for female enlistees

Maximum weight, in pounds, for male enlistees

Troops dismissed from the Army in 2007 for being out of shape

Troops dismissed from the Army in the first 10 months of 2012 for being out of shape

Percent of U.S. troops classified as overweight or obese in 2010

Percent of U.S. adults who are obese

Percent of civilians hoping to volunteer for the Army in 2009 who were physically ineligible to join, with obesity being the leading cause

Mutation causes defective Natural Killer cells


Natural Killer (NK) cells defend the body against infectious diseases and cancer by recognizing and killing stressed or infected cells and patients with NK deficiencies are susceptible to severe viral infections. In this issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine report on a patient with an NK cell deficiency caused by a mutation in CD16, which codes for a protein on the surface of NK cells that recognizes antibodies. To determine the exact role of CD16 in NK cell cytotoxicity, Jordan Orange and colleagues studied the effect of mutant CD16 in a human NK cell line. The mutant CD16 was unable to interact with another NK cell protein, CD2, which is required for cytotoxic activity in NK cells. Patients carrying this mutation were highly susceptible to viral infection. This study identifies a potential cellular mechanism that underlies human congenital immunodeficiency.


Human immunodeficiency-causing mutation defines CD16 in spontaneous NK cell cytotoxicity


Jordan Orange

Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA

Phone: 832-824-1319; E-mail:

View this article at:

Purified bacterial extract sprayed into lungs protection against all four major classes of pathogens including those responsible for anthrax and bubonic plague

Washington, D.C. — A purified extract prepared from a common microbe and delivered to the lungs of laboratory mice in a spray set off a healthy immune response and provided powerful protection against all four major classes of pathogens including those responsible for anthrax and bubonic plague, according to a presentation at the American Society for Cell Biology’s 47th Annual Meeting.

In addition, when the researchers exposed another group of mice to an aerosol of live Streptococcus pneumoniae, the only animals that survived were the ones that had been pre-treated with the spray. A total of 83 percent of these mice survived. None of the untreated animals lived.

The researchers at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston developed the spray from a purified extract of the common coccobacillus named Haemophilus influenzae, the cause of ear and sinus infections in human children.

Their “aerosolized lung innate immune stimulant,” as the scientists have named the spray treatment, could benefit immune-compromised patients with cancer, HIV or other diseases as well as emergency workers and the general public facing uncommon threats like an aerosolized bioterror attack or a spreading respiratory epidemic.

According to Brenton Scott who with his postdoctoral advisor, Burton Dickey, developed the spray, the treatment works best if administered four to 24 hours before exposure. Nearly all mice survived when treated before exposure to lethal doses of anthrax, influenza, and the dangerous mold, Aspergillus. But, the treatment also has some benefit when given after exposure. Effectiveness declines over time but seems to last up to five days after a single dose.

The researchers report that protection by stimulant is associated with rapid pathogen killing in the airways, does not depend on recruitment of other immune defense cells such as neutrophils, and correlates with increased levels of antimicrobial polypeptides in the lung lining fluid. The host response is localized to the airways, and safety studies indicate that the treatment causes minimal side effects, even with repeated doses.

Preclinical testing is being completed, and clinical trials are being designed.

* reposted on request

Texas will spray for West Nile virus despite fears of insecticide risks – (Effects on IQ appear to be similar to lead exposure)

* Some Notes on The Dislogic Syndrome

1. Destruction of Honey Bees during a food crisis
2. The Inhalation Risk to Children and Infants
3. The Comparitive Dangers of West Nile Virus Compared to Pesticide Poisoning
4. Duet is Highly Toxix to Aquatic Organisms. The Very Same Aquatic Organisms that Consume Mosquitos
Links To Known Studies on Hazards…( This is just a couple of links of many)
Tom Dart in Houston,    Friday 17 August 2012 17.01 EDT

Aerial spraying to combat the West Nile virus will continue Friday night across north Texas despite the concerns of residents worried about potential health risks posed by the insecticide.

Dallas is the center of the worst West Nile outbreak in the US this year, which prompted local officials to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday and dispatch two airplanes to spray the city and surrounding areas last night.

The planes left Dallas’ Executive Airport as planned at 10pm last night but were only able to spray about 52,000 acres, just over half their target, because of rain.

“We’ll look at our weather patterns tonight and see if we can add to the remaining block. We have two planes coming in today. If we have good weather, we can get 124,000 acres every three-and-a-half hours with two planes, so four planes would give us right at a quarter of a million acres. So, weather permitting, we’ll try to get that,” Dallas County judge Clay Jenkins told

The area could be sprayed again in the coming days once the effectiveness of this week’s efforts to reduce the mosquito population have been assessed. Confirmed West Nile virus deaths in Dallas and surrounding counties have now reached 14, with over 230 cases. The Texas Department of State Health Services has recorded 509 cases and 20 deaths across Texas, compared with two fatalities last year.

Texas is by far the worst-hit state, with more than half of all US cases, though news media today suggested that the virus is gaining a foothold in the Chicago region. At least 26 people have died across the nation, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that it was aware of 693 human infections through the second week in August. The CDC said that six people have died in Louisiana.

West Nile was discovered in the US in 1999. Instances of infection typically peak from late August to early September each year. Scientists believe it is transmitted to humans when mosquitoes bite infected birds, then people. About 80% of humans do not become ill after a bite, but around one in five may develop flu-like symptoms. Less than 1% of victims develop severe infections that can cause neurological diseases.

Some counties adjacent to the city of Dallas have opted out of the aerial spraying, though many are using ground-based pesticides.

Cities such as New York, Houston and Sacramento have previously used aerial spraying. Houston, Texas’ largest city, has done so every year since 2002. However, Dallas has not employed the tactic since 1966, which has helped breed local anxiety about the safety of the method.

Council members and residents have expressed doubts but the mayor, Mike Rawlings, insisted at a media briefing on Thursday that the Duet pesticide was safe. However, the mayor did concede this week that the pesticide can be harmful to useful insects, such as honey bees.

It is a synthetic pyrethroid which imitates natural pesticides found in some chrysanthemums. “There’s a lot of sentiment that people don’t want this, and there’s a fear of the unknown,” he said.  You have the science, the CDC and EPA and all of these cities across the United States that say this is OK.”

Jenny Land, a Dallas resident who has previously made recommendations to the city on mosquito control, strongly disagrees. “I think [aerial spraying] is a political, fear-based statement to say to people, ‘Look, we’re doing something,'” she told the Guardian.

Duet has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for mosquito control but the product label says it is toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.

“They’re egregiously saying it’s safe but there are known health risks with every pesticide. When you spray anything off the back of an airplane you can’t be sure where it lands,” Land said. “They have a moral obligation to let citizens know what the risks are.”

Dr David Lakey, the Texas health commissioner, told reporters this week that the risk posed by the chemicals was negligible compared with the threat of a West Nile epidemic and that the widespread use of aerial spraying in other large urban areas for many years indicated the method was not dangerous.

Still, a Texas department of state health services statement recommends precautions “for people concerned about exposure during aerial spraying” that include staying indoors, keeping pets inside, washing exposed skin or clothes with soap and water, covering small fish ponds and rinsing home-grown fruits and vegetables with water.

Land said that she has temporarily relocated to Austin because she has an immune system disorder and fears the spraying could worsen her condition. “I have a close family friend scheduled to come into Dallas for medical treatment who’s on 24-hour oxygen,” she said. “The pulmonologist said to her, ‘Do not come to Dallas, do not take the risk.'”

The company conducting the Dallas aerial treatment, Clarke, was fined $1m by state and federal authorities in 2001 for using untrained and unsupervised workers while spraying New York.

A pressure group, Dallas, Stop The Spray! has collected more than 1,800 signatures on a petition that calls for “the city to stop the ineffective and dangerous mosquito spraying and instead, channel equivalent funds and efforts to implement safer and proven practices for mosquito prevention and eradication.”

According to the Dallas Observer, Jenkins said Friday afternoon that no hospitals in the region reported any admissions related to West Nile on Thursday night, nor was there evidence of any sudden increases in asthma attacks following the spraying. He said the pesticide was “an incredible risk to West Nile-bearing mosquitoes… but not an unreasonable risk to you or your family.”

He added that any legal attempts to halt the spraying, such as the filing of a court injunction, would not succeed given the sweeping powers afforded to the mayor while the city is under a state of emergency.

Broccoli derivative shows promise at stopping even worst cancers

Vegetables that prevent may ultimately cure some cancers

COLLEGE STATION – Broccoli, cabbage, turnips and mustard greens. A dose a day keeps most cancers away.

But for those who develop cancer, the same vegetables may ultimately produce the cure. Research at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station has led to a patent for a new use for derivatives of DIM, or diindolylmethane, a natural compound derived from certain vegetables, to treat cancer.

“We took advantage of a natural chemical, that research has shown will prevent cancer, and developed several more analogs,” said Dr. Steve Safe, an Experiment Station chemist who has been studying cancer for about 10 years.

Safe’s patent has been picked up by Plantacor, a new biotech company headquartered in College Station, and is expected to enter clinical trials soon in collaboration with M.D. Anderson in Houston.

DIM already is commercially available as a natural supplement for cancer prevention and for treating estrogen-related health issues.

“DIM is a potent substance,” Safe said. “But we made it even more potent against various tumors.”

The first development in this research using chemically altered DIM from broccoli came when the growth of breast cancer cells was inhibited in laboratory studies. Subsequent research showed these compounds also inhibited growth of pancreatic, colon, bladder and ovarian cancer cells in culture, Safe said. Limited trials on lab mice and rats have produced the similar results, he noted. 

Safe said the research began by considering compounds that protect a person from developing cancer. Journal articles of other researchers are stacked on Safe’s expansive desk, extolling the scientific evidence that cruciferous vegetables prevent cancer.

His team wondered whether the similar compounds could be developed for treatment of cancer. They looked at the mechanism – how the compounds block cancer cell growth – and found that they target PPAR gamma, a protein that is highly active in fat cells. However, this same PPAR gamma is over-expressed in many tumors and tumor cells and is a potential target for new drugs, he said.

Safe’s lab chemically modified “natural” DIM to give a series of compounds that target the PPAR gamma and stop the growth of cancer.

“One of the best parts is that this treatment appears to have minimal or no side effects, in the mice trials; it just stops tumor growth,” he said. “The hope now is that the patented chemicals can be developed into useful drugs for clinical trials and then be used for cancer treatment.

“It looks promising in cancer cells and animals at this time. We need future studies in humans to see if it is beneficial with people as well,” he added.


Additional photos:

A video that can be linked on web sites also is available at or

A related story about growing cruciferous plants in the garden is at

*Resposted at request

Phthalate, environmental chemical is linked to higher rates of childhood obesity

Obese children show greater exposure than nonobese children to a phthalate, a chemical used to soften plastics in some children’s toys and many household products, according to a new study, which found that the obesity risk increases according to the level of the chemical found in the bloodstream. The study will be presented Saturday at The Endocrine Society‘s 94th Annual Meeting in Houston.

The chemical, di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), is a common type of phthalate, a group of industrial chemicals that are suspected endocrine disruptors, or hormone-altering agents.

In the study, children with the highest DEHP levels had nearly five times the odds of being obese compared with children who had the lowest DEHP levels, study co-author Mi Jung Park, MD, PhD, said.

“Although this study cannot prove causality between childhood obesity and phthalate exposure, it alerts the public to recognize the possible harm and make efforts to reduce this exposure, especially in children,” said Park, a pediatric endocrinologist in Seoul, Korea, at Sanggye Paik Hospital and professor at Inje University College of Medicine.

Phthalates are found in some pacifiers, plastic food packages, medical equipment and building materials such as vinyl flooring, and even in nonplastic personal care products, including soap, shampoo and nail polish.

Prior research has shown that phthalates may change gene expression associated with fat metabolism, according to Dr. Park. Because past research suggested a link between concentrations of phthalate metabolites and increased waist size in adults, her group studied a possible connection with childhood obesity.

Dr.Park and colleagues measured serum levels of DEHP in 204 children: 105 obese and 99 healthy-weight youth ages 6 to 13 years. The researchers divided these DEHP measurements into four groups from the lowest detectable level (40.2 nanograms per milliliter, or ng/mL) to the highest (69.7 to 177.1 ng/mL).

They found that the obese children had a significantly higher average DEHP level than did the nonobese controls (107 versus 53.8 ng/mL, respectively). In particular, a high DEHP level correlated with body mass index and percentage of fat mass. This increased risk of obesity with elevation of DEHP levels was independent of factors such as physical activity and daily calorie intake, according to the authors.

“More research in people is needed to determine whether DEHP exposure contributes to childhood obesity,” Dr.Park said