Phthalates have been called “the everywhere chemical” because they’re used in hundreds of products — from toys and vinyl flooring, to shampoo and food packaging.
Adults and children absorb them into their bodies through their skin, and by inadvertently eating and inhaling them. Just about everyone has been exposed — 99 out of 100 Americans would have evidence of the chemicals in their urine, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards.
Now a new study estimates phthalate exposure may lead to about 100,000 premature deaths among Americans in their 50s and 60s each year — particularly due to heart disease — resulting in up to $47 billion in lost productivity. Trasande, the lead author, called the estimates “conservative.”
“I don't enjoy making economic arguments together with disease arguments. I think the fact that tens of thousands of Americans are dying as a result of these exposures is a mix of frightening and depressing,” Trasande, who is also a professor in the departments of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health at NYU, told TODAY.
“The argument usually is that it’s too costly for the economy to even consider safer alternatives. This study says, hey, wait a minute. In fact, you had better change to safer alternatives because the costs to society are huge… (phthalates) were not designed with the human body in mind.”
Trasande described them as a “motley crew of chemicals” with “different flavors.” Some are added to personal care products to preserve scent, others make plastics more durable.
It's not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
More research is needed to measure the health effects of exposure to phthalates on humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the chemistry industry, called phthalates “among the most thoroughly studied family of chemicals” with exposure levels many times below levels of concern.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “is concerned about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals.”
Trasande said a substantial body of literature has linked these chemicals to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. They’ve been called hormone disruptors because men (and women) exposed to high levels of phthalates tended to have reduced levels of testosterone in their blood. Low testosterone is a marker of cardiovascular disease in men, Trasande noted.
The estimates from the new study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Pollution, are based on data from a nationally representative sample of more than 5,300 adults who were 55–64 years old.
The participants with the highest concentrations of phthalates in their urine were more likely to die of heart disease than those with lower exposure. The findings were similar for premature death from any cause, but there were no significant associations with cancer mortality.
“We can't delineate a mechanism here. We're not here to declare a specific way by which these chemicals are doing what we're seeing. But what we're seeing is, at a population level, extremely problematic,” Trasande said.
People can reduce their exposure to phthalates by:
- Making diet changes such as eating fewer highly-processed foods and consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables. That still won’t eliminate all risk because healthy items can come in plastic packages that contain the chemicals, which absorb into food on contact.
- Choosing skin care products that are phthalate- or fragrance-free.
- Storing food and drinks in non-plastic containers, such as glass, stainless steel or ceramic.
- Avoiding microwaving or machine dishwashing plastic containers. Frozen vegetables in a plastic bag tend to pose less of a danger, for example, but if you microwave them in that plastic bag, “you are inviting these chemicals to come in,” Trasande said.
The study authors urged limits on the use of phthalates in food contact materials and other consumer products, and called for using safer alternatives instead.
“It really speaks to the need for stronger regulation,” Trasande noted.