NEW YORK - Daily exposure to synthetic chemicals called phthalates, which are used in plastic food containers, cosmetics and hundreds of other consumer products, may lead to roughly 100,000 premature deaths each year in older Americans, according to a new study.
The study, led by a team at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, also estimated that those deaths could cost the U.S. between $40 billion and $47 billion in lost economic productivity, a value more than quadruple that of previous estimates.
Phthalates make plastics more flexible and are among the most common chemicals found to disrupt the body’s hormones, known as the endocrine system. These chemicals "are linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems," according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
People may be exposed to phthalates and other endocrine disruptors through their diet, skin, air and water, the NIEHS states, including through the consumption of certain foods and beverages, use of certain cosmetics, and even pesticides applied.
"Our findings reveal that increased phthalate exposure is linked to early death, particularly due to heart disease," lead study author Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, said in a statement. "Until now, we have understood that the chemicals connect to heart disease, and heart disease, in turn, is a leading cause of death, but we had not yet tied the chemicals themselves to death."
FILE IMAGE - A food cart worker fills a styrofoam take-out container with food for a customer on Dec. 19, 2013, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The study, published Oct. 12 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution, looked at more than 5,000 adults between the ages of 55 and 64 and found that those with the highest concentrations of phthalate in their urine were more likely to die of heart disease than those with lesser exposure.
Similarly, Americans in this high-exposure group were more likely to die of any cause than those in the low-exposure groups. However, high levels of the toxins did not appear to increase the risk of death due to cancer, the study authors said.
Trasande cautioned that the new research does not establish a direct cause and effect association between phthalate exposure and early deaths, in part because the specific biological mechanism that would account for the connection remains unclear. But the researchers plan to further study the role these chemicals may play in hormone regulation and inflammation in the body.
Trasande added that the new results add to mounting evidence of societal costs related to continued heavy exposure to the chemicals, finding an estimated annual economic burden between $40 billion and $47 billion.
Past research has linked more than 10,000 deaths a year to lowered testosterone levels in adult men due to phthalate exposure, which has cost Americans nearly $9 billion in estimated lost economic productivity.
"Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought," said Trasande, who also serves as director of the NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards. "The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans’ physical and financial well-being."
This story was reported from Cincinnati.