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Aguilar analyzes harmful fake hormones

Omar AguilarOmar Aguilar, sophomore civil engineering major from Port Arthur and recipient of the 2015-2016 Office of Undergraduate Research grant, recently completed a project which analyzed phthalates, or fake hormones, in plastic children’s items using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.

Phthalates are used to increase flexibility of plastics, and are popularly used in teething products, baby milk powder, pacifiers and the packaging and wrapping of children’s lunch food products.

“There are many ways phthalates affect children before birth and after birth. For example, birth defects can happen while in the womb and after birth exposure can affect the quality of sperm in boys and induce early puberty in girls,” Aguilar said. “Also, they are known to be carcinogenic and have been linked with breast cancer, an issue that would concern older women.”

In his research, Aguilar studied six variations of phthalates in a children’s lunch product, teething products, and powdered milk. He found that packaged ham in the lunch product (at 147 ppb) and the powdered milk (at 832 ppb) carried amounts of phthalates considered detrimental by the European Public Health Commission, but were considered acceptable by U.S. EPA regulations, which Aguilar called “frustrating.”

Because these products come in contact with children’s mouths and saliva, the phthalates are ingested by the body, which cannot differentiate them from real hormones.

“It is a very important subject to research and talk about because most people have no idea what phthalates are or what kind of harmful effects they bring,” Aguilar said. “Along with that, the public is mostly unaware that these dangerous substances are basically everywhere. They are used in most plastics, and we use plastics for everything in the present day.”

He began his work on the topic, under the guidance of Andrew Gomes (associate professor of research, College of Engineering) after winning the OUR grant as a freshman in the fall of 2015.

“A friend of mine told me about the opportunity of working on research with a professor and then introduced me to Dr. Gomes.” Aguilar said. “Dr. Gomes was the person who brought the subject to my attention, and I did find the subject of phthalates interesting.”

The most rewarding aspects of his research, Aguilar says, were being a part of the scientific process, acquiring a vast amount of new skills and “acquiring new perspectives of the world pertaining to scientific progress.”

Aguilar presented his findings through poster presentation titled, “Chromatography-Mass Spectrometric Analysis of Phthalates in Food Packaging and Children’s Toys” at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Asheville, N.C. this April. He plans to continue research throughout his college career.