Preterm births linked to “hormone-disruptor” chemicals in plastics cost the U.S. health care system billions of dollars, a new study claims.
Daily exposure to phthalates — chemicals used to manufacture plastics — might be tied to nearly 56,000 preterm births in the United States in 2018, researchers report.
Estimated medical costs resulting from those early births run from $1.6 billion to $8.1 billion over the lifetime of the children born prematurely, according to the study published Feb. 6 in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.
“Our findings uncover the tremendous medical and financial burden of preterm births we believe are connected to phthalates, adding to the vast body of evidence that these chemicals present a serious danger to human health,” said lead researcher Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
For the new study, Trasande and his colleagues analyzed phthalate exposure in more than 5,000 American mothers using data gathered by the National Institutes of Health.
Phthalates are added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency and durability. They are also found in hundreds of other products, like vinyl flooring, lubricating oils and personal care products like soaps, shampoos or hair sprays.
Exposure to the chemicals has been shown to interfere with the function of hormones, potentially harming human reproduction and early development, researchers said in background notes.
They measured urine levels of 20 different phthalate metabolites, which are the substances into which the chemicals break down within the body. The urine samples were collected at three points during each woman’s pregnancy.
The team then looked for associations between these metabolite levels and preterm births.
The results specifically linked phthalate exposure to increased risk of lower birth weight and premature birth, researchers said. These factors modestly heighten risk for infant death, poor academic performance and could contribute to future heart disease and diabetes.
In their next step, the researchers estimated the total bill for each of these preemie births, factoring in stays in intensive care, other related medical bills and lost lifetime worker productivity.
The research team also searched for distinctions between specific phthalates.
Specifically, they compared di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), a chemical used to make plastic more flexible, with several newer replacements for DEHP.
Mothers with the highest levels of DEHP had a 50% increased risk of giving birth before week 37 of their pregnancy, compared to those who had the lowest levels, results show.
At the same time, the risk for preterm birth was doubled for women exposed to the highest levels of three common DEHP alternatives, di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP), and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP).
“These results demonstrate the need to regulate phthalates as a class rather than trying to address them one at a time,” Trasande said in an NYU Langone news release. “Otherwise, investigators are likely going to find the same study results in another few years about the next group of chemicals used as replacements.”
Researchers plan to now look at phthalate exposures in other countries. They also want to examine the health effects of preventing phthalate exposure, noting that California and some European Union nations have banned the use of the chemicals in consumer products.
The Natural Resources Defense Council says that expecting moms who want to limit their phthalates exposure can:
Investigate their favorite cosmetics, fragrances and personal care products to see if they contain phthalates
Eat fresh, unprocessed food when possible
Avoid heating food in plastic containers
Rid their homes of vinyl as much as possible
Stop using air fresheners
The Natural Resources Defense Council has more about phthalates.
SOURCE: NYU Langone, news release, Feb. 6, 2024
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