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NIH study links common chemicals, vehicle exhaust to rates of eczema

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  • Staff Report 

A recent study by the National Institutes of Health has found that chemicals commonly used in various products and vehicle exhaust pipes may be linked to a high rate of atopic dermatitis, commonly known as eczema in infants. The study discovered that “hot spots” where the disease was most common had toxins in the surrounding environment, with similar chemicals called diisocyanates and isocyanates found to be most prevalent.


Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that affects 31.6 million Americans and is reported to begin in the patient’s first year of life, peaking in early childhood, according to the National Eczema Association. The condition can be triggered by several allergens, including pets, perfumes, dyes, and food.

Genetics have long been believed to play a vital role in eczema, but the rapid rate of increased cases since the 1970s has puzzled experts. The research team discovered that pollutants are likely behind the increasing cases of atopic dermatitis. The study found that diiisocyanates are commonly used in the manufacturing process of polyurethane products, including adhesives, flexible foams, carpeting, and fabrics that stretch or are weather-resistant.

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The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has stated that chemicals are unlikely to be toxic in polyurethane products if the items have been cured appropriately by the manufacturer, leading researchers to focus on exhaust fumes’ role in the rapid rate of cases. Catalytic converters, which became mandatory on all vehicles in the U.S. in 1975, coincide with the initial spike in eczema cases, and produce isocyanates as a byproduct, which experts believe plays a role in the increased cases.

Dr. Ian Myles, chief of the Epithelial Research Unit in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology, stated that “we have solid data establishing that pollutants are very likely behind increasing cases of atopic dermatitis.” Dr. Jessica Hui, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, stated that “I think these authors are spot on in recognizing that the incidence of allergic conditions is increasing concurrently with how different pollutants are increasing in our environment.” She added that “we’re finally understanding more about why people are getting eczema.”



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