A new study suggests that certain chemicals found in plastic may be contributing to the rise in preterm births in the United States.
For several decades, manufacturers have used plastic to package almost everything, including food. Though plastic packaging is lightweight and convenient, scientists have raised concerns over whether the chemicals they contain, such as phthalates and bisphenols, may have potentially harmful health effects.
Previous reports suggest that exposure to plastic can cause several health issues. For example, people who work in facilities that produce plastic products may have lower fertility rates and higher risks of developing specific types of cancer or neurotoxic injury due to daily exposure.
Plastics are one of several chemicals that scientists consider endocrine disruptors, which may contribute to obesity.
Moreover, phthalates in plastic food and beverage containers have compromised the food supply. A recent Consumer Report analysis found elevated levels of phthalates in virtually all the food products tested.
Now, according to a new study, some chemicals in plastic may be contributing to the increase in preterm births in the United States.
The research, published in the February issue of The Lancet Planetary Health, used data from the U.S. National Institutes of Health Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program from 1998 to 2022 to investigate associations between 20 phthalate metabolites and premature birth.
The scientists determined phthalate levels in 5,006 mothers via urine samples.
After examining the participants' phthalate levels and birth records, the researchers found that di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diisodecyl phthalate (DiDP), diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), and di-n-octyl phthalate (DnOP) were linked to 5% to 10% of preterm births in the U.S. in 2018. That equals an estimated 56,595 preterm babies, costing the U.S. around $3.84 billion.
The study's authors say that while manufacturers are replacing DEHP with DiNP, DiDP, and 1,2-cyclohexane dicarboxylic acid diisononyl ester in food packaging, the finding suggests that these replacement chemicals may be driving an increase in preterm birth. In the study, these replacements had stronger links to preterm birth than DEHP.
According to the latest CDC National Vital Statistics Report, preterm and early-term birth rates increased by 12% in the last decade.
Considering the findings, Healthnews contacted the American Chemistry Council — a trade association for U.S. chemical companies — for comment and is awaiting a response.
Ditch the plastic
Research suggests that microwaving food in plastic containers can release billions of chemicals. While it might be easy to avoid preparing food this way, what else can a person do to reduce exposure to plastics and the chemicals they contain?
Most food in the grocery store is wrapped or contained in some form of plastic, so it may be challenging to avoid all exposure. However, Consumer Reports suggests that to reduce overall contact with the chemicals, a person can opt for glass storage containers instead of plastic food containers when storing leftovers or other food items.
In order to reduce your family's phthalate exposure, people can swap plastic kitchen utensils for those made of wood, stainless steel, or silicone. Another way to reduce exposure to plastic chemicals is to carry water in a glass bottle instead of water containers made of plastic.
- The Lancet Planetary Health. Prenatal phthalate exposure and adverse birth outcomes in the USA: a prospective analysis of births and estimates of attributable burden and costs.
- Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Endocrine modulating chemicals in food packaging: A review of phthalates and bisphenols.
- CDC. Shifts in the distribution of births by gestational Age: United States, 2014–2022.
- Consumer Reports. How to reduce your exposure to plastic in food (and everywhere else).