Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Are You Exposing Yourself to This Potentially Lethal Chemical?

ARE YOU EXPOSED EACH DAY TO PHTHALATES, chemicals in everything from makeup to plastic containers? A new study from New York University suggests that such exposure may lead to 100,000 deaths in older Americans each year.

Let’s explore phthalates: What are they? Why are they used? What are the potential consequences of exposure to these substances?

What are phthalates?

The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explains that phthalates are “a group of chemicals used to make plastics last longer.” Some companies use phthalates to help dissolve other materials.

You can find phthalates in a variety of products, including:

  • lubricating oils
  • vinyl flooring
  • personal-care products such as hair sprays, shampoos, and soaps
  • medical supplies, including intravenous tubing, bags, and gloves (BPA, phthalates)

Some phthalates are in materials in products such as garden hoses and plastic packaging.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Phthalate dangers

We have long known the hormone-disrupting properties of phthalates. Phthalates can affect your endocrine system. What effect does endocrine disruption have on our health?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals mess with our endocrine physiology by interfering with the creation of hormones, metabolism, and cellular actions.

Did you know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are in legumes, soy, and other plant-based products? Still, the primary source of these substances is industrial processes. We can find EDCs in the air, soil, and water.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can cross the placenta. Here are some of the medical conditions that may be related to in-utero phthalate exposure:

However, we do not have definitive evidence that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are the culprits for these conditions in humans.

Phthalates in the population

As noted above, phthalates can cross the placenta to affect a fetus. The toxins can also enter our bodies via sites such as personal care products, clothing, or toys.

To better understand the volume of phthalates that have entered people’s bodies, scientists have measured phthalate metabolites in the urine of individuals in the United States. The researchers measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of over 2,600 individuals.

Here are the findings of this historical study, published in 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Phthalate exposure appears widespread in the population.
  • Adult women have higher levels of many phthalate metabolites (compared with men), given that soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and other personal care products can contain phthalates.
  • Non-Hispanic Blacks have higher levels of phthalate exposure compared with non-Hispanic whites.

The finding of phthalate metabolites does not necessarily translate to ill health effects.

Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

Phthalates — A new study

New York University researchers recently evaluated 5,000 adults ages 55 to 64 years. Publishing in the journal Environmental Pollution, they report this disturbing finding:

Phthalate exposure is associated with early death. Those with higher urinary levels of phthalates appeared more likely to die of heart disease. No association with cancer death emerged.

Extrapolating to those ages 55 to 64 years, the study authors identified more than 90,000 phthalate-attributable deaths per year in the USA.

However, higher concentrations did not increase the risk of death from cancer.

Study lead author Leonardo Trasande explains that “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.”

Phthalates — My take

The New York University phthalate does not establish a causal relationship between phthalate exposure, cardiac disease, and early mortality. In addition, we do not fully understand the biological mechanisms that may underlie the phthalate/early death relationship.

Other studies suggest that phthalate exposure is associated with over 10,000 deaths per year (given an association with low testosterone in males) in the United States.

Phthalate exposure may be undermining our health and well-being. Exposure to endocrine-disrupting agents can occur in many ways, including through inhalation of gases and particles in the air, skin contact, ingestion of dust, food, and water, across the placenta, or from mother’s milk.

Photo by Sophia Marston on Unsplash

I am reducing my use of plastics in food preparation and storage. No more bringing grapes to work in plastic bags — welcome the stainless steel Japanese-style lunch box (bento box). We may also reduce our phthalate exposure through the use of filtered water.

Finally, do we all need many fragrance-containing cosmetics, detergents, or soaps? We may drop our phthalate exposure by going fragrance-free. The study authors call for regulatory intervention.

In 2017, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of eight ortho-phthalates in children’s toys and child-care articles. But for vinyl plastics and personal care products, there’s no specific legislation by other governmental agencies:

Why phthalates should be restricted or banned from consumer productsMarch 10, 2021 – In this Big 3 Q&A, Russ Hauser, Frederick Lee Hisaw Professor of Reproductive Physiology, and…www.hsph.harvard.edu

Read about the approach for the European Union here. Thank you for joining me.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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