Phthalates in Plastics: An Unseen Threat to Pregnant Women and Fetuses
Unmasking the Dangers of Phthalates
Phthalates, commonly found in plastics, have been shown to pose a significant health risk to pregnant women and their unborn children. Recent research has uncovered the potential harm these chemicals can cause, with effects ranging from inflammation and oxidative stress to an increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and childhood disorders. These chemicals are not only found in plastics but also in ultra-processed foods and even the gloves worn by food handlers, raising serious concerns about our daily exposure to these harmful substances.
Shocking Findings from Recent Studies
A study published in The Lancet Planetary Health revealed that prenatal exposure to phthalate metabolites, or breakdown products of phthalates, can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. The research, which collected data from the National Institutes of Health Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program, found that higher concentrations of multiple phthalate metabolites were observed in non-Hispanic Black mothers. Hispanic mothers showed higher concentrations of low molecular weight metabolites and lower concentrations of high molecular weight metabolites. The study estimated a staggering 56,595 preterm birth cases in 2018, with associated costs of 3.84 billion USD.
Another study suggested that roughly 10% of preterm births in the U.S. in 2018 were fuelled by exposure to phthalates. These chemicals are used in the making of plastic food containers and many cosmetics. The economic cost of such births was calculated to be $1.6 million for all babies born preterm potentially due to phthalates in 2018, and $8.1 billion over those children’s lifetimes combined. The study also found that phthalate exposure is linked to lower birth weight, gestational age, and death among newborns, as well as lower academic performance, diabetes, and heart disease in childhood.
Phthalates in Ultra-processed Foods and Packaging
Research has shown that pregnant women should avoid ultra-processed and fast foods due to the presence of phthalates in the packaging and even plastic gloves worn by food handlers. Diets higher in ultra-processed foods are linked to greater phthalate exposures in pregnant women. One study found that a phthalate found in food packaging, Di 2 ethylhexyl phthalate or DEHP, had the largest association with preterm labor. In 2018 alone, DEHP and three similar chemicals could have been responsible for 5 to 10% of all preterm births, translating to nearly 57,000 preterm births in the United States during that year.
Urgent Need for Regulatory Change and Consumer Awareness
The growing body of evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of phthalates has prompted calls for regulatory changes. Legislation is needed to prevent phthalate contamination in foods by regulating the composition of food wrapping and gloves used by food handlers. However, with manufacturers potentially creating new versions of chemicals that are not yet regulated, consumer awareness is equally important.
The study advises pregnant women to avoid ultra-processed foods and instead seek out fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Reading labels to understand the ingredients in the food they consume is also recommended. The goal is to reduce exposure to phthalates and protect the health of both the mother and the fetus.
Conclusion: Time for a Healthier, Safer Environment
The findings of these studies underscore the need for a healthier, safer environment for pregnant women and their unborn children. It’s time to rethink our use of plastics, especially in food packaging and handling, and explore safer alternatives. As consumers, it is crucial to make informed choices about the products we use and the foods we consume. As a society, it’s our duty to demand stronger regulations to protect our health and the health of future generations from the hidden dangers of phthalates.