Phthalate Exposure During Pregnancy Is Linked to Preterm Birth, According to New Study

Pregnant people exposed to certain chemicals found in personal-care products and food packaging were more likely to experience a premature delivery.

Pregnant people exposed to certain chemicals called phthalates, or plasticizers, during pregnancy are more at-risk for premature delivery, according to a study published in the journal of JAMA Pediatrics in July.

The study is the largest on the topic to date. Researchers looked at 16 prior studies that included more than 6,000 U.S. pregnant women who delivered between 1983 and 2018. They found that pregnant individuals who had higher urinary concentrations of phthalate metabolites were more likely to deliver three weeks before their estimated due date. In this study, the most consistent findings for preterm birth involved exposure to phthalates found in personal care products like nail polish.

"Preterm birth is one of the most poorly understood, intractable challenges in maternal-child health," said author Emily Barrett, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and a member of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, in a press release. "This study provides compelling evidence that everyday chemicals in our environment are part of the problem."

pregnant woman buys washing powder

In addition to personal care products, such as nail polish, soap, and shampoo, phthalates are typically used in detergents and food packaging. They make plastic softer, flexible, and more durable, but they're controversial. This recent study is the latest in a string of research linking phthalate exposure with health risks. Health officials, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, and Natural Resources Defense Council, have issued numerous warnings about the risks associated with them, including to the reproductive system. Previous research has linked phthalate exposure to low sperm count and motility.

Researchers concluded that phthalate exposure is a preventable risk factor for preterm delivery. They found that cutting phthalate exposure by 50% could decrease the likelihood of preterm delivery by 1.1%. According to the press release, the authors are conducting more research to better understand how and why phthalate exposure can impact pregnancy and how pregnant individuals can protect themselves and their fetuses.

In the meantime, the researchers suggest:

  • Eating home-cooked, fresh meals when possible
  • Limiting intake of processed foods
  • Selecting phthalate-free products

People can research the ingredients in products using resources like Environmental Working Group and Clearya.

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