Daily exposure to phthalates, which are synthetic chemicals founds in many consumer products, may lead to hundreds of thousands of early deaths each year among older adults in the U.S., according to a new study published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution.
The chemicals are found in hundreds of types of products, including children’s toys, food storage containers, makeup, perfume, and shampoo. In the study, those with the highest levels of phthalates had a greater risk of death from any cause, especially heart disease.
“This study adds to the growing database on the impact of plastics on the human body and bolsters public health and business cases for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics,” Leonardo Trasande, MD, the lead author and a professor of environmental medicine and population health at NYU Langone Health, told CNN.
Trasande and colleagues measured the urine concentration of phthalates in more than 5,000 adults ages 55-64 and compared the levels to the risk of early death over an average of 10 years. The research team controlled for preexisting heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, poor eating habits, physical activity, body mass, and other known hormone disruptors such as bisphenol A, or BPA, an industrial chemical that’s been used since the 1950s to make certain plastics and resins, according to the Mayo Clinic
The research team found that phthalates could contribute to 91,000 to 107,000 premature deaths per year in the U.S. These early deaths could cost the nation $40 billion to $47 billion each year in lost economic productivity, researchers estimated.
Phthalates interrupt the body’s endocrine system and hormone production. Previous studies have found that the chemicals are linked with developmental, reproductive, and immune system problems, according to NYU Langone Health. They’ve also been linked with asthma, childhood obesity, heart issues, and cancer.
“These chemicals have a rap sheet,” Trasande told CNN. “And the fact of the matter is that when you look at the entire body of evidence, it provides a haunting pattern of concern.”
Phthalates are often called “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common, CNN reported. Also called “plasticizers,” they are added to products to make them more durable, including PVC plumbing, vinyl flooring, medical tubing, garden hoses, food packaging, detergents, clothing, furniture, and automotive materials.
People are often exposed when they breathe contaminated air or consume food that comes into contact with the chemical, according to the CDC. Children may be exposed by touching plastic items and putting their hands in their mouth.
Trasande told CNN that it’s possible to lessen exposure to phthalates and other endocrine disruptors such as BPA by using unscented lotions, laundry detergents, and cleaning supplies, as well as substituting glass, stainless steel, ceramic, and wood for plastic food storage.
“First, avoid plastics as much as you can. Never put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, where the heat can break down the linings so they might be absorbed more readily,” he said. “In addition, cooking at home and reducing your use of processed foods can reduce the levels of the chemical exposures you come in contact with.”
Environmental Pollution: “Phthalates and attributable mortality: A population-based longitudinal cohort study and cost analysis.”
CNN: “Synthetic chemical in consumer products linked to early death, study finds.”
NYU Langone Health: “Deaths Linked to ‘Hormone Disruptor’ Chemical Costs Billions in Lost U.S. Productivity.”
CDC: “National Biomonitoring Program: Phthalates Factsheet.”
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