Premature babies are exposed to extraordinarily high concentrations of phthalates due to exposure to plastic medical equipment used during neonatal intensive care.
Many of the diseases unique to premature babies, including the lung disorder bronchopulmonary dysplasia and the intestinal ailment necrotizing enterocolitis, are associated with excessive inflammation.
"... [There is] direct evidence that the presence of phthalates prolongs the survival of white blood cells, which supports the idea that they are contributing to damage and to inflammation ... phthalates encourage cells to produce hydrogen peroxide, which ... can kill cells and damage tissue."
When a baby is born premature -- an increasingly common phenomenon that occurs in one out of eight U.S. births -- he often depends on neonatal intensive care to survive.
There, the baby will typically be hooked up to multiple types of medical equipment including plastic tubing such as breathing tubes, feed tubes and intravenous tubes. For a premature newborn, the tubes act as a veritable lifeline, but they also expose the child, who will perhaps never be more vulnerable, to dangerous plasticizing chemicals known as phthalates.
Exposed to Toxins to Stay Alive
Phthalates are widely used in the United States to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible. Along with common uses in toys, food packaging, shower curtains and vinyl flooring, they're also prevalent in plastic medical equipment (as well as in household cleaners, cosmetics and personal care products).
Studies have shown that premature babies are exposed to extremely high concentrations of phthalates, with the latest research showing a direct link between exposure to phthalates and excessive inflammation.
Inflammation is known to trigger a number of diseases in premature babies, including a chronic lung disorder known as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal condition.
Researchers from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) also reported that phthalates encourage the formation of hydrogen peroxide, which can kill cells and damage tissue when produced in excess.
With each plastic tube that a newborn is hooked up to, the rate of phthalate exposure increases. And for those premature infants who spend weeks and months in the neonatal intensive care unit, the exposure levels can be extraordinary.
In fact, a report released by the nonprofit organization Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) found that male infants exposed to phthalates through medical procedures are most at risk of suffering health effects.
Premature Babies Not the Only Infants at Risk
As EHHI reported, studies have shown women of childbearing age have significantly higher phthalate exposures than other adults (could this be because they also use the most cosmetics?), and the chemical has been detected in 100 percent of pregnant women tested. It's known that fetal exposure to phthalates is closely related to maternal exposure, according to EHHI, so many, if not all, babies are starting out with exposure in the womb.
In childhood, children are further exposed to phthalates in consumer products ranging from toys, pacifiers and food packaging to personal care products and crawling on vinyl flooring. Phthalates have even been detected in infant formula and baby food.
They're also widespread pollutants in air and water, meaning you and your children are also likely exposed through your air and drinking water.
Health Risks of Phthalates
Aside from increasing inflammation in premature babies, phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to a wide range of developmental and reproductive effects, including:
- Reduced sperm counts
- Testicular atrophy or structural abnormality
- Liver cancer
Further, in experiments on rats, phthalates have demonstrably blocked the action of fetal androgens, which affects gender development in male offspring, leading to undescended testes at birth and testicular tumors later in life.
Studies have also found that boys whose mothers had high phthalate exposures while pregnant were much more likely to have certain demasculinized traits and produce less testosterone.
Yet another study found that pregnant women who are exposed to phthalates gave birth more than one week earlier than women who were not exposed to them.
And, the more a pregnant woman is exposed to high levels of phthalates, the greater the risk her son will have smaller genitals and incomplete testicular descent, leading to impaired reproductive development. The chemical also appears to make the overall genital tracts of boys slightly more feminine.
It is believed that phthalates have these adverse effects because they reduce testosterone synthesis by interfering with an enzyme needed to produce the male hormone.
Other studies have linked the chemical to thyroid problems in both women and men, and researchers have also suggested a link between phthalates and illnesses like allergies, asthma and contact dermatitis, all of which are on the rise in children.
How Can You Reduce Your, and Your Children's, Exposure to Phthalates?
In July 2008, the U.S. Congress finally passed legislation banning six types of phthalates from children's toys and cosmetics. Legislators in Washington, Vermont and California have also restricted phthalate use in children's goods, and several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, Lego, Evenflo and Gerber claim they will phase out phthalate-laden toys voluntarily.
However, phthalates are still found in:
- Medical equipment
- Food packaging
- Shower curtains
- Vinyl flooring and wall coverings
- Lubricant and adhesives
- Beauty products like nail polish, hair spray, lipstick, nail polish remover and shampoo
- Tap water
- Food (meat, milk (plastic tubing at dairy farms contains phthalates) and others)
You can cut back on your exposure by:
- Choosing toys made from natural materials (or at least only buying those made from phthalate-free plastic).
- When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric or install glass shower doors.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great safety guide to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
- Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances and perfumes.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Avoid processed foods (many are packaged in phthalate-containing packaging) and instead focus your diet on fresh, organic and locally grown whole foods.
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
Finally, since premature newborns are among those most at risk of phthalate exposure, you should know that there is powerful new evidence emerging that optimizing your omega-3 fat intake and making sure you have sufficient vitamin D levels can reduce your risk of having a premature delivery.
It is absolutely imperative that pregnant women maintain a blood level of between 50 and 70 ng/ml of 25 hydroxy D. So please watch my free one-hour vitamin D lecture to find out how to get your levels optimized and reduce your risk of premature birth if you're pregnant.