Premature births are on the rise, yet experts aren’t sure why. Now, researchers have found synthetic chemicals called phthalates used in clear food packaging and personal care products could be a culprit, according to a new study.
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Past research has demonstrated that phathalates — known as “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common — are hormone disruptors that can impact how the life-giving placenta functions. This organ is the source of oxygen and nutrients for a developing fetus in the womb.
“Phthalates can also contribute to inflammation that can disrupt the placenta even more and set the steps of preterm labor in motion,” said lead author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health.
“Studies show the largest association with preterm labor is due to a phthalate found in food packaging called Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP,” Trasande said. “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.”
The 5% to 10% percentage translated into nearly 57,000 preterm births in the United States during 2018, at a cost to society of nearly $4 billion in that year alone, according to the study, published Tuesday in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.
“This paper focused on the relationship between exposure to individual phthalates and preterm birth. But that’s not how people are exposed to chemicals,” said Alexa Friedman, a senior scientist of toxicology at the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, in an email.
“Every day, they’re often exposed to more than one phthalate from the products they use, so the risk of preterm birth may actually be greater,” said Friedman, who was not involved in the study.