November 30, 2009 / 8:39 PM / 10 years ago

Plastics chemical phthalate may shorten pregnancy

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pregnant women who are exposed to higher levels of an increasingly controversial chemical in certain plastics may deliver their babies slightly earlier than women with less exposure, results of a study hint.

“The magnitude of the effects seen,” the study team wrote in today’s issue of Pediatrics, “might be associated with adverse health effects in newborns.”

The chemical, DEHP — short for di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate — is a “plasticizer” used widely in consumer products to help make vinyl plastic soft and flexible.

“Exposures (to DEHP) are ubiquitous,” Dr. Robin M. Whyatt from Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health in New York City told Reuters Health. DEHP breakdown products “have been detected in 95% of the general U.S. population.”

In recent preliminary studies, DEHP exposure has been linked to some health risks. In animal studies, for example, exposure to this and other so-called phthalates has been linked to lower-weight babies and shorter pregnancies.

In preliminary human studies, prenatal DEHP exposure has been shown to affect the timing of labor; however, the findings have been mixed.

They gauged DEHP exposure by measuring four DEHP breakdown products in urine samples collected from the 311 African American or Dominican women aged 18 to 35. All of the women were living in New York City and were in their third trimesters.

The team found that the higher the level of DEHP breakdown products in the mothers’ urine during pregnancy, the earlier the infant was born, Whyatt told Reuters Health. Babies with the highest level of exposure were born about five days earlier than those exposed to the lowest levels.

It’s important to note, the researchers say, that the women in the study delivered their babies at or near term. However, if prenatal DEHP exposure were to lead to more infants being delivered prematurely, on average, this could be cause for concern, they say, “because premature delivery is a cause of morbidity and death.”

That’s a big if, however. “Given inconsistencies with prior studies, our results should be interpreted with caution,” Whyatt said. “Nonetheless, our findings raise a red flag and additional research is clearly warranted,” she added.

Steve Risotto, Senior Director, Phthalate Esters, at the American Chemistry Council industry group, noted that two earlier studies contradicted the current one, showing opposite effects. “There was also no association found between phthalate exposure and prematurity, as all of the births were full term,” he told Reuters Health.

“What is significant is that no adverse health effects were reported, and there is nothing in this study to cause concern,” Risotto said.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online November 30, 2009.

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