Scientists have identified a common chemical linked to early death, and the downside is that (at least in America) it’s still legally found in thousands of products — some of which may be right under your feet.
Researchers from NYU Langone investigated phthalates, plasticizing chemicals used in everything from vinyl flooring, siding and shower curtains to food wraps, food packaging and cosmetics. The findings suggest a huge toll on not only human health and survival, but the economy, as well. Phthalates may cause up to 100,000 premature deaths a year in older American adults, along with $40 to $47 billion in lost productivity.
As the study lays out, previous research already linked exposure to phthalates to all sorts of health problems, including:
- Breast and thyroid cancers
- Premature birth
- Gestational diabetes
- Childhood and adult obesity
- Adult diabetes
One prominent discovery in the most recent research involves the connection between high phthalate levels in urine and higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease. (The link was even more pronounced in men.)
“Our findings reveal that increased phthalate exposure is linked to early death, particularly due to heart disease,” says study lead author Leonardo Trasande, MD. “Until now, we have understood that the chemicals connect to heart disease, and heart disease in turn is a leading cause of death, but we had not yet tied the chemicals themselves to death.”
And although this type of study doesn’t provide direct “cause-and-effect” evidence, the team says it plans on further studying the specific biological mechanism that could underline phthalates’ contribution to shortening lives. In particular, researchers will look at the role phthalates may play in hormone regulation and inflammation.
Chemical Linked to Early Death
Phthalates are known as one of the “Dirty Dozen” endocrine disruptors, and are also categorized as obesogens for their obesity-promoting characteristics. In this most recent study, “high-molecular weight” phthalates, like di-2-ethylhexylphthalate (DEHP) were most closely linked to premature death among 55 to 64 year olds.
DEHP is found in medical equipment like IVs and ventilators, but it’s also used in some plastic food packaging and in vinyl products, including flooring and siding. DEHP is often used in tubing for dairy and many other food processing applications. Because of its broad use, breakdown metabolites are found in most Americans.
The main route of exposure is likely ingestion through food contact, and as consumer products break down. Low-income communities, and/or communities with high populations of black and brown residents, are particularly at risk. Not only do they face exposure through food and products, but the actual PVC plants manufacturing vinyl are often located in these neighborhoods.
Landfills are another hotspot for DEHP contamination. DEHP has even been detected in tomatoes grown with biosolids, the “sewage sludge” left over in wastewater treatment plants that non-organic farmers are allowed to use to grow our food. Phthalates are even detected at levels 200+ times above the legal limit in dollar store toys.
“Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought,” says Dr. Trasande, who also serves as director of NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards. “The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans’ physical and financial wellbeing.”
How to Protect Yourself
It is virtually impossible to completely protect yourself from phthalates because they are so widespread. In fact, authors of this study say: “Regulatory action is urgently needed to reduce these preventable exposures.”
Other things you can do:
- Avoid vinyl/PVC products as much as possible.
- Avoid synthetically scented personal care products, candles and air fresheners that contain other types of phthalates connected to health problems.
- Opt for unscented laundry detergent, cleaning products and personal care products. Nix perfume and cologne.
- Call your federal representatives and senators and tell them to support meaningful chemical regulation laws.
- Stand up in solidarity for communities and help them reject PVC plants, landfills and other toxic industrial invasions that threaten the health of our most vulnerable.
- Avoid eating take-out and at restaurants as much as possible. On average, people who are eating food prepared outside of the home have nearly 35 percent higher levels of phthalates circulating in their bodies compared to people who eat food prepared at home.
- Avoid store food in and eating from plastics, particularly plastics No. 3, 6 and 7.
- Avoid washing plastics in dishwashers and heating food in plastics in the microwave.
- Opt for fresh or frozen foods as much as possible, and shy away from overpackaged, over processed foods.
- A first-of-its-kind study links certain phthalates to 100,000 premature deaths in America a year.
- Phthalates are chemicals that make plastics soft and flexible. The type of phthalate linked to early deaths and heart disease in this study is known as DEHP, and it’s used in vinyl/PVC production.
- DEHP is commonly used in medical equipment like IVs. It’s also used in food processing tubing and other equipment, along with food packaging materials.
- This new study estimates that phthalates could be linked to up to $47 billion in lost wages in the U.S. annually, due to premature deaths.
- All-cause mortality was linked to phthalates, but the link was especially strong for heart disease-related deaths.
- Phthalates are widespread and detected in most Americans. Researchers and consumer safety groups suggest the only way to truly protect citizens is for strong regulatory action.