Mount Sinai Study Finds Strong Link Between Neighborhood Factors and Childhood Obesity in Harlem

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that children from East Harlem are three times more likely than other U.S. children to be overweight.

New York, NY
 – April 16, 2009 /Press Release/  –– 

Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have found that children from East Harlem are three times more likely than other children in the U.S. to be overweight, and that neighborhood characteristics likely play a strong role in the area’s childhood obesity problem.

Researchers at the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research followed 520 children aged 6-8 for five years, 334 of whom were from East Harlem, for the "Growing up Healthy in East Harlem" study. The study was intended to determine how the area where the children lived affected diet, physical activity levels and risk for obesity.

The study identified some of the primary causes of childhood obesity in East Harlem as:

  • East Harlem children have easy access to unhealthy foods. 55% of children in the study live on a block with at least one convenience store, and 41% live on a block with fast food. The presence of even one convenience store on a block was associated with a higher percentage of overweight or obese children than on blocks with none.
  • Unhealthy food stores abound just outside school doors. 93% of East Harlem children in the study went to schools that are within one block of convenience stores, and 62% went to schools that are within one block of a fast food restaurant. Access to convenience stores and fast food encourages unhealthy snacking – 80% of the children in the study reported purchasing food items from convenience stores at least one time per week.

The study also examined children’s exposures to chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors. These chemicals – phthalates and Bisphenol A – may affect the hormones that regulate a child’s growth and development. The study found high levels in East Harlem children of exposure to these chemicals:

  • Children in the study higher levels in their urine of three endocrine disrupters – 2,5 DCP, MBP and MEHHP – than a national sample of children the same age. These chemicals are found in fragrances and products with fragrances, nail polish, vinyl, flexible plastics such as shower curtains and a variety of household products. Little is known about the precise effect of these chemicals on the human body, but the "Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem" study will help scientists understand whether these exposures are associated with health effects. Until more is known, simple steps can be taken to reduce children’s exposure now.
  • The levels of one chemical called DCP – which is formed in the body from the chemical DCB and is also common in mothballs, room deodorizers and toilet cakes – was 3 to 10 times higher in the study children than in a national sample of children the same age. Researchers do not know the specific effects of this exposure in humans, but the finding suggests that these products should be investigated further and safe alternatives should be explored.

Dr. Maida Galvez, a pediatrician at Mount Sinai, said, "Given the children’s exposure to DCP at levels much higher than the national average, we recommend that families avoid use of mothballs and toilet bowl deodorizers in the home. These products, which can irritate the lungs, have already been banned from use in NYC schools."

In 2003, the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene reported that 43% of the children entering kindergarten were overweight or obese for their age. That shocking statistic raised great concern among parents and communities throughout New York City. Childhood overweight and obesity is a major risk factor for health problems in adult hood, such as diabetes and hypertension, as well as early puberty and possibly childhood asthma.

To gather data, parents or guardians and the children themselves were surveyed about their diet, availability of healthy food in their neighborhood, level of physical activity and availability of places to play. Researchers also exhaustively surveyed the neighborhood block-by-block to note the proximity of various food sources to key locations such as childrens’ homes and schools. The Study has been guided by an active Community Advisory Board of parents, community residents and providers of health and social services in East Harlem.

The Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research is part of the Mount Sinai Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, which is also managing within New York City the National Children’s Study. The $3 billion National Children’s Study will be the largest federally funded child health study in the nation’s history, with the goal of following 100,000 children from before birth through age 21 to document how various environmental and genetic factors influence their health and development.

About The Mount Sinai Medical Center
The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The Mount Sinai Hospital is one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. Founded in 1852, Mount Sinai today is a 1,171-bed tertiary-care teaching facility that is internationally acclaimed for excellence in clinical care. Last year, nearly 50,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients, and there were nearly 450,000 outpatient visits to the Medical Center.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine is internationally recognized as a leader in groundbreaking clinical and basic-science research, as well as having an innovative approach to medical education. With a faculty of more than 3,400 in 38 clinical and basic science departments and centers, Mount Sinai ranks among the top 20 medical schools in receipt of National Institute of Health (NIH) grants.