A group of chemicals regularly found in cosmetics and plastic food packaging may potentially result in 100,000 early deaths in the USA each year, a new study published in Environmental Pollution estimates. The researchers say that phthalates, used as plasticizers and in fragrances, could have a hidden cost of both the health of hundreds of thousands and also almost $50 billion lost in productivity every year.
“Our findings reveal that increased phthalate exposure is linked to early death, particularly due to heart disease,” says study lead author Leonardo Trasande, in a statement.
“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.”
Phalates are almost everywhere. They come in many forms – DBP is used in nail polishes to stop them cracking; DMP is used in hairspray to maintain hair plasticity; DEP is used in fragrance as a fixative; and DEHP is used in medical plastics such as catheters and air tubes. As you can tell, these chemicals are incredibly important and play a huge role in many plastic products.
However, research has suggested phthalates cause hormone disruption and potentially play a role in disease. The FDA documents multiple studies that suggest a health risk – however, there are also many suggesting the contrary, and their role in health and disease has remained elusive for the past three decades. The CDC states that "More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates."
Researchers from NYU Langone Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine performed a cohort study of over 5,300 people between the ages of 55 and 64 to test phthalate safety. The participants gave urine samples between 2001 and 2010 as part of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey, and these were analyzed for the presence of phthalate metabolites.
When these measurements were compared to various causes of mortality, correlations began to appear. Those with higher rates of phthalate metabolites had higher risk ratios for all-cause mortality, but the risk was particularly high for mortality from cardiovascular disease when compared to low-exposure groups. However, there was no significant increase in cancer risk.
Extrapolating these results and comparing them with the population size of this age group in America, the researchers suggest around 100,000 people die from phthalate-related complications every year, as well as $39.9–47.1 billion lost from the economy as a result.
Of course, there are limitations with studies like this. Cohort studies looking for all-cause mortality increases often remain correlational, acting merely as a starting point for further research. With increases in mortality risk found to be especially high with DEHP, it is also possible this is connected to increased time in hospital, and not linked to the increased plastic exposure, but that is merely one of many links found.
The findings join a growing body of research suggesting altered hormone function due to phthalate exposure may be posing a risk – previous research has identified a risk of phthalates interfering with testosterone levels and testicular function. There has been no causal mechanism identified yet, but researchers express interest in pushing towards that next.
“Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought,” says Trasande.