Daily exposure to synthetic chemicals called phthalates — found in a wide array of products, including plastic food containers, toys and cosmetics — may lead to over 100,000 premature deaths among older Americans each year, according to a new study.
Phthalates, a group of so-called “everywhere chemicals” used to make plastics more durable, are in hundreds of products such as soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, vinyl flooring and lubricating oils, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A new study published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution found that people with the highest levels of the chemicals had a greater risk of death from any cause, particularly cardiovascular mortality, CNN reported.
The phthalates may contribute to between 91,000 and 107,000 premature deaths every year in people age 55 to 64 in the US, according to the study, which found that the deaths could cost the country up to $47 billion a year in lost economic productivity.
“This study adds to the growing database on the impact of plastics on the human body and bolsters public health and business cases for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics,” lead author Dr. Leonardo Trasande of NYU Langone Health in the Big Apple told CNN.
The study measured the urine concentration of phthalates in more than 5,000 adults in that age group and compared those levels to the risk of early death over an average of 10 years, said Trasande, a professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine and population health.
He noted that the scientists controlled for pre-existing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, poor eating habits, physical activity and body mass, as well as hormone disrupters like bisphenol A or BPA.
“I’m never going to tell you this is a definitive study. It is a snapshot in time and can only show an association,” Trasande told the network, adding that finding out exactly how the chemicals may affect the body requires a double-blind randomized clinical trial.
Such a study will never be conducted “because we cannot ethically randomize people to be exposed to potentially toxic chemicals,” he noted.
“But 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,” Trasande added.
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, phthalates interfere with the body’s hormone production, known as the endocrine system, and are “linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems.”
Phthalates also have been connected with reproductive problems, such as undescended testes in male infants and lower sperm counts and testosterone levels in adult males. They also have been linked to childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular issues and cancer.
“These chemicals have a rap sheet and the fact of the matter is that when you look at the entire body of evidence, it provides a haunting pattern of concern,” said Trasande, who also directs NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the US chemical, plastics and chlorine industries, pushed back at the new study.
“Much of the content within Trasande et al’s latest study is demonstrably inaccurate,” Eileen Conneely, ACC’s senior director of chemical products and technology, told CNN in a statement.
She noted that the researchers lumped all phthalates into a single group and failed to mention that the industry says high-molecular-weight phthalates like DINP and DIDP have lower toxicity than other ones.
“Studies such as these fail to consider all phthalates individually and consistently ignore or downplay the existence of science-based, authoritative conclusions regarding the safety of high molecular weight phthalates,” Conneely told the outlet.
Trasande recommended limiting exposure to the chemicals.
“First, avoid plastics as much as you can. Never put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, where the heat can break down the linings so they might be absorbed more readily,” he said.
“In addition, cooking at home and reducing your use of processed foods can reduce the levels of the chemical exposures you come in contact with,” the expert added.