Link Found between Chemicals in Plastics and Preterm Delivery
We’ve known for some time that phthalates, which are found in many types of plastics, can cause birth defects, endocrine problems, and other health issues. The latest news reports the largest study to date - and it shows that phthalate exposure can also increase the risk for preterm birth.
What are phthalates, in which products are they found, and how can pregnant people minimize their exposure?
We’ve got the scoop.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are human made chemicals found in many plastics and personal care products. They have a wide variety of uses, including:
- Softening vinyl
- Making PVC (synthetic leather)
- Adding strength and durability to plastic products
- Increasing the flexibility of plastic products
- Making plastic items easier to clean
- Insulating wiring for electronic devices
Where are Phthalates Found?
A huge number of products that we use every day contain phthalates, including:
- Personal care products (lotions, shampoo, cosmetics, perfume, nail polish)
- Plastic toys
- PVC building materials
- Some detergents and solvents
- PVC plumbing
- Food packaging and food storage containers
- Medical plastics such as tubing, IV bags, catheters, linings)
- Some time-release medications
In addition, people can come into contact with phthalates from plastics used in conveyor belts, plastic gloves, jar lids, and more. In addition, full fat dairy and meat products have been shown to have higher concentrations of phthalates.
Phthalates are forever chemicals. Forever chemicals stay in the environment for a very long time. They seep into the soil and water table, and can cause persistent problems.
If you’re interested in the science, you can read more about phthalate exposure to gain a better understanding.
What Problems Can Phthalate Exposure Cause?
Phthalates are easily metabolized by the human body, and chemical exposures to phthalate metabolites have been documented to cause a wide range of problems for human health.
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors - they interfere with the body’s hormones. This can cause developmental problems, neurological problems, problems with the immune system, growth problems, and neuro-developmental delays.
Phthalates have also been linked to:
- Breast cancer
- Type II Diabetes
- Male infertility.
And now we know that phthalate exposure is one of the risk factors for premature birth.
Why Are Phthalates a Problem for Children's Health?
Premature birth in itself has numerous health implications for children.
Premature babies have a higher risk of:
- Underdeveloped lungs
- Kidney problems
- Heart problems
- Infections and immune system problems
- Cerebral palsy
- Problems with vision and hearing
- Impaired cognitive function
- ADD / ADHD
- Chronic health problems
- Developmental issues
An increased risk of preterm birth means an increased risk of serious and potentially lifelong health issues.
What Does the New Study Say, Exactly?
A press release from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the results of a study by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The study was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The study pooled data from 16 other studies, which looked at the phthalate metabolites in prenatal urine samples. 96 percent of the samples contained phthalate metabolites, and nine percent of the women in the study delivered preterm.
The study finds that pregnant women who were exposed to multiple phthalates during pregnancy have a higher risk of preterm delivery.
Other findings included:
- Higher concentrations of phthalate metabolites were associated with an increased risk of preterm birth
- Exposure to four out of the 11 phthalates found in the urine samples were associated with a 14 to 16 percent greater risk of premature birth
- These findings were most consistent with regard to phthalate exposure from personal care products.
Kelly Ferguson, PhD, the senior scientist on the study, said,
“Having a preterm birth can be dangerous for both baby and mom, so it is important to identify risk factors that could prevent it.”
What is the Potential Impact of the New Findings?
In the short term, the findings indicate a new risk factor that pregnant people need to be educated about.
In the long term, hopefully, consumers will demand safer alternatives for everyday products.
How Can Preterm Births Be Prevented in Relation to This?
Barrett Welch, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS and the study’s first author says,
“It is difficult for people to completely eliminate exposure to these chemicals in everyday life, but our results show that even small reductions within a large population could have positive impacts on both mothers and their children.”
So, how can we reduce our exposure and improve public health?
- The study suggests avoiding plastic containers, packaging and wrapping, especially when it comes into contact with food. Instead of packaged, processed foods, families should eat fresh, home-cooked food whenever possible.
- Pregnant people should also choose fragrance-free products, and products labeled “phthalate free,” whenever possible.
- Lastly, we should all be advocating for companies to change the amount and types of products that contain phthalates.
How Much Effect Could It Have?
According to the study, reducing the overall level of phthalates exposure by half could prevent, on average, 12 percent of preterm births. Considering that there are more than 3.5 million babies per year born in the U.S., this is a significant amount.
In addition, to reduce exposure in your own home, the National Resources Defense Council suggests:
- Washing your hands regularly
- Dusting and vacuuming often
- Filtering your tap water.
It’s very difficult to avoid phthalates. But the study suggests that even a small reduction in exposure can be a great help toward reducing the risk of premature birth.