Exposure to phthalates, a class of synthetic chemicals found in numerous consumer products, may lead to premature death, according to a new study by NYU Grossman School of Medicine scientists. Earlier studies have linked phthalate exposure to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are a class of chemical compounds mainly used to soften and enhance the flexibility and durability of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). However, they are also often used to help fragrances last longer and as a solvent or lubricant.
Given the wide range of uses for phthalates and the prevalence of plastic in modern society, they are also known as “everywhere chemicals.” They are the most commonly used plasticizers on the market and are found in everything from shampoo to vinyl flooring.
The Study Findings
The study, published in the October 2021 publication of Environmental Pollution, analyzed the level of phthalates in the urine of at least 5,000 individuals between the ages of 55 and 65 years old.
Leonardo Trasande, the lead researcher and director of NYU Langone Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, and his colleagues compared the phthalate levels to early death vulnerability over a 10-year period.
They found that individuals with the highest phthalate concentration in their urine were at a higher risk of dying earlier than expected, particularly of heart-related complications. The scientists controlled for pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
They also controlled for physical activity, poor eating habits, and the concentration of bisphenol A (BPA) and other common hormone disruptors.
The researchers linked 91,000 to 107,000 premature adult deaths in the US every year to these chemicals and estimated those deaths cost the economy between $40 billion and $47 billion annually. Early, or premature death, is defined as death prior to the average life expectancy in the United States, which is currently 75 years old.
How People Are Exposed to Phthalates
According to risk assessments carried out by the European Food Safety Authority and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, the cumulative exposure of these ubiquitous chemicals is already very high, with food being the leading source of phthalate exposure worldwide.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expanded on that point further, specifying that most phthalate exposure is via inhalation, often when consuming food and drinks that come into contact with the chemicals.
Scientists have found phthalates in fish, meat, dairy products, baked goods, oils and fats, infant formula, and processed foods. Even organic foods can contain phthalates as the contamination is often through food handling and packaging materials.
A prior study completed in 2018 by researchers at the University of California in conjunction with the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University in DC revealed that those who dine out frequently might have an increased risk of phthalate exposure.
Household dust and poor indoor air quality are also significant sources of phthalate exposure. According to the CDC, young children are especially vulnerable to exposure from phthalate-contaminated air, dust, and other particles due to their hand-to-mouth habits.
Once phthalates make their way into the human body, they are converted into metabolites (breakdown products) that are quickly expelled from the body through urine. As a result, scientists can estimate the number of phthalates present in the body by measuring phthalate metabolites in urine.
In the 2003–2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), CDC researchers measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of at least 2,600 people over the age of six.
Researchers found considerable levels of various phthalate metabolites in the general population, indicating the chemicals’ exposure is rampant in the US population. The CDC published the findings in the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.
How to Know a Product has Phthalates and Minimize Exposure
In cases, it can be challenging to determine whether a product contains phthalates. The law requires manufacturers to list phthalates on ingredient labels, but they sometimes include these chemicals as part of the fragrance, excluding them from the ingredients list.
However, as public awareness of the risks of phthalate exposure has grown, many manufacturers have stopped including them in their products. An increasing number of products come with a “phthalate-free” label. Beyond looking for products with this label, the following tips can help you reduce your phthalate exposure:
- Read product labels. Many manufacturers don’t include phthalates on labels, especially vinyl or plastic toys and personal care products. When they do, they usually use acronyms such as DiBP and DHEP.
- Use unscented cleaning and personal care products, including lotions, detergents, and soaps.
- Use food handling and storage equipment made of wood, glass, ceramic, or stainless steel.
- Avoid fast food and other packaged products—including fruits and vegetables.
- Stop using air fresheners, and plastics labeled No. 7, No. 6, or No. 3.
- Avoid machine-washing plastic products.
- Choose microwave-safe and phthalate-free containers and plastic wraps, especially for fatty and oily foods.
- Ask for phthalate-free medical devices if you receive a blood transfusion or are on kidney dialysis.
Industry Leaders Refute the Study Findings
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), representing the US plastics, chemical, and chlorine industries, made a press statement terming the study “demonstrably inaccurate.”
The council’s reasoning was that the study lumped all phthalates into a single group instead of considering their different toxicity levels and ignored or downplayed “the existence of science-based, authoritative conclusions regarding the safety of high molecular weight phthalates.”
According to Eileen Conneely, the council’s senior director of chemical products and technology, the study did not recognize that high-molecular-weight phthalates such as DIDP and DINP are less toxic than others.
Transande, the lead researcher on the Environmental Pollution study, refuted these claims, stating the ACC’s response was predictably similar to those of the tobacco industry when studies revealed the harmful properties of their products.
He also pointed out that the council did not provide any evidence to contradict the study’s findings but noted that due to ethical concerns, studies on phthalate exposure only offer a “snapshot in time” and can only show an association.