The effects of synthetic chemicals called phthalates — dubbed “everywhere chemicals” — are being found in the womb, experts now warn.
A new study backed by the National Institutes of Health has shown that phthalates, found in everyday products from food containers to shampoo, may be behind the rise in preterm births in the US.
“Phthalates can also contribute to inflammation that can disrupt the placenta even more and set the steps of preterm labor in motion,” Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health, explained in a CNN report.
Specifically, scientists looked at one of the most well-established phthalates — Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP — along with 19 others.
“Studies show the largest association with preterm labor is due to a phthalate found in food packaging called [DEHP],” Trasande continued. “In our new study, we found DEHP and three similar chemicals could be responsible for 5% to 10% of all the preterm births in 2018. This could be one of the reasons why preterm births are on the rise.”
To put the increase in perspective: the US saw roughly 57,000 preterm births caused by phthalates in 2018, according to the new study, now appearing in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.
Around the world, more than 8 million metric tons of phthalates and similar chemicals are consumed annually — either ingested, inhaled or seeped through the skin — according to one European chemical trade association.
Research has previously linked phthalates to cancer, infertility, birth defects, obesity, asthma, heart disease, diabetes and premature death, among many potential other health conditions.
However, the American Chemistry Council, a chemical trade association for US industries, maintained that the new report failed to establish a hard connection between phthalates and preterm births.
“Not all phthalates are the same, and it is not appropriate to group them as a class,” the organization told CNN. “The term ‘phthalates’ simply refers to a family of chemicals that happen to be structurally similar, but which are functionally and toxicologically distinct from each other.”
Phthalates are also referred to as “plasticizers” for their plastic-like quality. It’s how vinyl flooring gets its sheen, how paint gets its elasticity and how rain jackets repel water, to name a few examples.
Officials are well aware of the dangers, Trasande noted: “The Consumer Product Safety Commission no longer allows eight different phthalates to be used at levels higher than 0.1% in the manufacture of children’s toys and child care products.”
He said he wants to see the Food and Drug Administration do the same in food packaging.
When chemicals get called out for causing harm, manufacturers react by creating a new chemical in its place which they claim to be a safer version — but experts aren’t so sure.
“We’ve created a worse problem, not a true solution, when it comes to protecting the public from plastic,” Trasande told USA TODAY. His prior research showed that the cost of illness caused by phthalates is upwards of $250 billion in the US alone.
“The chemical industry is profiting off of the backs of people in the form of increases in disease and disability that they then have to pay for,” he said.