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Chemicals found in consumer products may contribute to early deaths

Chemicals found in food containers, shampoo and children’s toys may contribute to 100,000 early deaths a year among people aged 55-64 in the US, study claims

  • A study of 5,000 Americans linked phthalates to 107,000 premature deaths
  • Findings fuel mounting safety concerns about harmful effects of the chemicals
  • Lead author said it bolsters case for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics

Exposure to chemicals in plastic food containers, toiletries and children’s toys may lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, a study suggests.

Researchers believe phthalates could contribute to up to 107,000 premature deaths among 55 to 65-year-olds in the US per year. 

The findings fuel mounting safety concerns about the harmful effect of the gender-bending chemicals, which are added to products to make them more flexible or last longer.

Over the past decade, phthalates have been linked to infertility, obesity and impaired development. Their use is limited in some countries. 

Lead author Dr Leonardo Trasande, from NYU Langone Health in New York City, said the study ‘bolsters public health and business cases for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics’.

He admitted more research would be needed to provide conclusive proof that the chemicals cause early death, as well as the mechanism for how this happens.

But Dr Trasande warned studies of that kind will never happen because they cannot ‘ethically randomise people to be exposed to potentially toxic chemicals’. 

Exposure to chemicals found in plastic food containers, toiletries and children’s toys could contribute to hundreds of thousands of fatalities every year, researchers at NYU Langone Health say

Phthalates are used to make plastics more durable and are found in hundreds of products, such as flooring, plastic packaging and garden equipment. 

People consume them by eating and drinking food that have been in contact, or through inhaling tiny phthalate particles.

Young children may also ingest them by crawling and touching lots of things and then putting their hands in their mouth. 

Once the chemicals are consumed, they breakdown and leave the body through urine.  

Phthalates are thought to be detectable throughout the US population, with levels higher among women, which experts believe is due to use of cosmetic products.

WHAT ARE PHTHALATES? 

Phthalates are additives that are used during the manufacturing of plastic or to extend a product’s shelf life.

The chemicals have been detected in numerous everyday products, such as bottled water, perfume, toys, vinyl flooring and shampoo.  

Phthalates are also added to fragrances to help the scent last longer on the skin.

The chemicals are thought to mimic oestrogen and have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer, as well as an early menopause. 

They may also disrupt how we store fat, leading to obesity.  

Some phthalates have also been found to cause reproductive toxicities in animal studies. 

One trial even found women are more likely to give birth prematurely if they have high levels of phthalates in their bloodstream before conceiving.   

For the new study, researchers examined 5,303 adults aged 55 to 64 who participated in a US health survey between 2001 and 2010, which included providing urine samples to measure phthalate levels.

Their information was then linked with mortality rates among the group up to 2015. 

Those with higher levels of the chemical in their body were more likely to die early from any cause, particularly cardiovascular problems, according to their study, which was published in the journal Environmental Pollution. 

When extrapolating the findings to the population of Americans aged 55 to 64, 90,761 to 107,283 deaths could be attributed to the chemicals.

This equates to $39.9 to $47.1 billion in lost economic productivity, researchers said.

Dr Trasande, a professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health, told CNN the chemicals ‘have a rap sheet’ and all the studies on them ‘provides a haunting pattern of concern’.

He said: ‘We already know phthalates mess with the male sex hormone, testosterone, which is a predictor of adult cardiovascular disease. 

‘And we already know that these exposures can contribute to multiple conditions associated with mortality, such as obesity and diabetes.’

Phthalates were coined ‘gender-bender’ chemicals by the EU more than a decade ago after it found they could harm children’s hormone levels, particularly in boys by causing lower testosterone levels, reduced sperm count and a higher risk of testicular cancer.

The US, EU, Canada, Israel, Brazil, Hong Kong, Australia and China have restricted or banned use of the chemicals in toys.

But the researchers have called for further action to limit food from coming into contact with phthalates.

However, he noted that the findings only show a link between the chemicals and higher risk of death and is not definitive.

‘It is a snapshot in time and can only show an association,’ Dr Trasande added.

People can reduce their exposure to phthalates and other problem chemicals – such as BPA, which is found in plastic food containers and drink bottles – by avoiding plastics, the experts said.

Heating up plastic – such as by putting them in the microwave or dishwasher – should also be avoided, they said, because this encourages harmful chemicals to breakdown and be more easily consumed.  

Exposure can also be reduvced by using unscented toiletryies and cleaning supplies, using non-plastic containers to store food and regular hand washing to remove chemicals. 

The American Chemistry Council, the trade association for chemical companies, told CNN that much of the findings are ‘demonstrably inaccurate’.

The research groups all phthalates together ‘and failed to mention that the industry says high-molecular-weight phthalates like DINP and DIDP have lower toxicity than other phthalates’, it said.

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