Women exposed to ‘everyday’ plastics are up to 50 percent more likely to have a preterm birth, study suggests

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • Phthalates, used to make plastics more durable, are found in toys and food
  • Women with highest markers of exposure were twice as likely to deliver preterm
  • READ MORE: Chemicals in common products may contribute to early deaths

The chemicals used to make plastic containers for water, food, and cosmetics known as phthalates are believed to be responsible for nearly 60,000 premature births a year in the United States.

Researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine estimated roughly 10 percent of all preterm births in 2018 were tied to the chemicals known to disrupt the body’s hormones, which are used to make plastics more flexible and durable.

The study found the top 10 percent of pregnant women with the highest levels of phthalates in their blood were twice as likely to deliver their babies before 37 weeks.

A preterm baby is any delivered before 37 weeks, while a full-term pregnancy is considered to be between 39 and 40 weeks. 

Women may be able to stay away from alcohol and sushi during their pregnancy, but phthalates are nearly impossible to avoid, earning them the nickname ‘everywhere chemicals.’

Exposure to the chemicals in the womb can wreak havoc on a developing baby’s endocrine system, setting them up for an imbalance of sex and thyroid hormones, as well as problems with their motor skills and developmental delays later in life.

The latest research from New York University researchers found daily exposure to phthalates, chemicals used to manufacture plastic food containers and many cosmetics, may be tied to nearly 56,600 preterm births in the US in 2018

Phthalates are considered endocrine disruptors for their deleterious effects on the body’s natural balance of hormones.

Babies are exposed in utero when the phthalates in a mother’s blood pass through the placenta to the fetus, and the consequences of that exposure run the gamut from low weight at birth to memory and learning problems later in childhood.

Phthalates have a relatively short half-life, meaning they break down within hours in the body, unlike PFAS, or ‘forever chemicals,’ which also line plastics but remain in the body for much longer.

But like PFAS, phthalates are in hundreds of products, including vinyl flooring, shower curtains, toys, food packaging, cosmetics, and cleaning products, so exposure to them is constant.

For the study, NYU researchers used data from the Environmental Influences on Childhood Health Outcomes (ECHO) program, a National Institutes of Health-led research initiative, to explore the effects of various environmental, social, and economic factors on children’s health and ways to improve it.

They tested urine samples taken from pregnant women at three different points in their pregnancies, measuring 20 different metabolites, or end products of the body’s digestion of the chemicals. 

In the process, they also compared specific types of phthalate, including di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), which is commonly found in IV bags and other medical devices.

Then, the researchers looked for links between levels of those metabolites and preterm births.

When they grouped mothers based on the amount of DEHP metabolites in their urine, the 10 percent with the highest levels had a 50 percent greater chance of delivering their babies before 37 weeks.

While just two weeks shy of what is considered a full-term pregnancy, a baby’s brain, lungs and liver all continue to develop. Being born too early – especially before 32 weeks – can raise an infant’s risk of a myriad health issues immediately and in the long-term. 

Researchers also found the risk for preterm birth was doubled for women exposed to the highest amounts of commonly used alternatives to DEHP found in cable wire, children’s toys, medical tubing, and drinking straws compared with those who had little to no exposure.

Studies have suggested that when phthalates cross the placenta, they impair fetal thyroid function, slowing a baby¿s growth into early childhood. The chemicals have also been linked to learning delays, behavioral issues, and asthma in children exposed in the womb

Studies have suggested that when phthalates cross the placenta, they impair fetal thyroid function, slowing a baby’s growth into early childhood. The chemicals have also been linked to learning delays, behavioral issues, and asthma in children exposed in the womb 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report reported an overall increasing trend in premature and early births

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report reported an overall increasing trend in premature and early births

Dr Leonardo Trasande, a top researcher on the effects of the environment on children’s health and author of the study, said: ‘These results demonstrate the need to regulate phthalates as a class rather than trying to address them one at a time.

‘Otherwise, investigators are likely going to find the same study results in another few years about the next group of chemicals used as replacements.’

Preterm births are increasing overall, and the pervasiveness of environmental pollutants like phthalates and forever chemicals may be playing a role. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found preterm births, defined as a birth before 37 weeks of gestation, increased by 12 percent between 2014 and 2022 from 7.7 percent to 8.7 percent. 

In 2022, provisional CDC data shows there were 3.66million babies born, meaning 318,400 of those children were born preterm. 

An expanding body of research shows phthalates act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they mimic or interfere with hormones in the body.

Studies have suggested when phthalates cross the placenta, they impair fetal thyroid function, slowing a baby’s growth into early childhood.

In addition to raising the risk of premature birth, exposure in utero has been linked with cases of childhood asthma, behavioral problems, and cognitive delays.

A 2018 study involving more than 1,300 Swedish and American children found that a higher level of phthalate exposure in the womb increased the odds that the child would have communication and language delays.

Children whose mothers had double the exposure to two types of phthalates were 30 percent more likely to understand fewer than 50 words, the threshold for a language delay.

And prenatal exposure to DEHP has been shown to influence a child’s behavior with what may be long lasting consequences. 

A report published in 2023 in the journal NeuroToxicology reported at 24 months old, boys with elevated prenatal exposure to phthalates, as indicated by higher levels in maternal urine, had greater challenges in social skills.

These included heightened emotional reactivity, symptoms of anxiety and depression, withdrawal from social interactions, and behavioral problems compared to children who had lower prenatal phthalate exposure levels.

With a growing body of evidence showing the severe negative effects of phthalates to both adults and unborn babies, scores of scientists are calling for their elimination from all consumer products.

They’ve teamed up with healthcare workers and children’s health advocates to form Project TENDR, which stands for Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks.

Stephanie Engel, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health and member of the group, said: ‘There are now dozens of studies from countries around the world finding adverse associations between phthalate exposure and multiple aspects of brain development, including effects on behavior, cognitive function and even brain white matter microstructure.

‘There is no compelling rationale to continue waiting for more evidence when phthalates can be eliminated from most uses.’

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

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