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Can preservatives in consumer products pose a risk to boys with asthma?

Published online: September 5, 2018

Parabens are synthetic chemicals found in a variety of consumer products, including personal care products, processed foods, food packaging, and some medications. They are mainly used as preservatives because of their antimicrobial properties. People are exposed to parabens mostly through skin absorption from using personal care products, although it is possible to be exposed to parabens via ingestion and inhalation. The widespread detection of parabens in the general population has raised concerns about their potential health risks given their antimicrobial properties and their ability to act as endocrine disruptors - compounds that can alter or mimic hormone function. Of particular concern is their potential effects on pediatric respiratory health given children’s developing immune and respiratory systems, and their unique vulnerabilities to chemical exposures.
In a recent study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), Quirós-Alcalá and colleagues assessed whether exposure to four commonly used parabens (butyl, ethyl, methyl and propyl paraben) was associated with current asthma diagnosis and asthma morbidity among U.S. children 6 to 19 years. Researchers used data from 2005 to 2014 available from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a representative sample of the U.S. population. The effects of parabens on current asthma diagnosis were assessed among 4023 children, and for asthma morbidity, among 450 children with asthma. Asthma morbidity was assessed by self-report of asthma attacks and emergency department visits (ED visits) for asthma in the prior 12 months. To assess exposure to parabens, researchers used measurements of parabens in urine samples provided by children. Because exposures to chemicals that may interfere with hormones have been shown to affect boys and girls differently, researchers also assessed whether any associations differed by gender.

Methyl and propyl paraben were detected in most children, whereas butyl and ethyl paraben were not as widely detected in children’s urine. Compared to children without current asthma, those who had current asthma had higher average concentrations for both methyl and propyl parabens. Average concentrations for these parabens were also generally higher for girls compared to boys, regardless of current asthma diagnosis status. Researchers did not observe any associations between exposure to parabens and current asthma prevalence or asthma morbidity in the population as a whole. However, they did identify differences by gender among children with asthma. Exposure to both methyl and propyl paraben among boys with asthma was associated with increased odds of reporting ED visits for asthma, despite boys having lower paraben concentrations in their urine. No associations were observed in girls with asthma.

This is the first study to report that boys may be at an increased risk for asthma morbidity if exposed to higher concentrations of two commonly used parabens. While this has not been examined previously, gender differences on the association between paraben exposures and allergic sensitization have been reported with males generally at a higher risk than females. The authors indicate that one plausible explanation for their findings is that exposure to parabens could augment allergic response and increase susceptibility to adverse respiratory effects. These results need to be confirmed in future studies and highlight the need for further studies to understand the mechanisms by which parabens could affect boys and girls differently and impart respiratory effects.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI) is an official scientific journal of the AAAAI, and is the most-cited journal in the field of allergy and clinical immunology.

Paraben exposures and asthma-related outcomes among children from the U.S. general population
First and Corresponding Author:   Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, PhD, MS