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Researchers identify factor that may have contributed to 10% of US preterm births in 2018: 'Crucial days of fetal development'

Preterm births can profoundly impact a child's development and require expensive hospital care.

Preterm births can profoundly impact a child’s development and require expensive hospital care.

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study has revealed an alarming link between phthalates — the chemicals used in plastic food packaging — and rising preterm birth rates in the United States.

What's happening with preterm births and plastic packaging?

According to a shocking new study by environmental health specialists at New York University, chemicals called phthalates, which are frequently present in plastic food packaging, cleaning products, and cosmetics, may have caused over 56,000 preterm births in 2018. That's nearly 10% of preterm births in the U.S. that year.

The study examined more than 5,000 American mothers and found that those with the most phthalate in their urine samples (collected on three separate dates during pregnancy) were most likely to experience a preterm birth, validating previous findings.

Researchers consider confounding factors such as the mothers' age, tobacco use, race, and education before making their estimation.

Why is this concerning?

Preterm births, defined as births before 37 weeks of gestation, can profoundly impact a child's development and require expensive hospital care. Babies born too early often face lifelong health issues like breathing problems, cerebral palsy, or vision and hearing loss. 

The authors of the study estimate the resulting medical costs and future lost productivity for children could cost society up to $8.1 billion for just one year of phthalate-linked preterm births.

"You might think a few days in a pregnancy isn't such a big deal, but those are crucial days of fetal development," said Leonardo Trasande, lead author of the study.

What's more alarming is that less than 10% of plastics globally are recycled, meaning these chemicals continue to leak into our environment through both production and waste.

Phthalates are also finding their way into our bodies at alarming rates, with previous studies detecting them in over 90% of adults and children tested.

What's being done?

The Federal Drug Administration has been phasing out the most common phthalates from children's toys and clothes, but study authors say plastic use in food packaging should be avoided altogether. 

On a global level, a United Nations treaty that would restrict plastic production is being negotiated.

The choices that companies and governments make regarding plastics impact human health. But we, as consumers, vote with our dollars. Seeking out fresh, plastic-free foods benefits families and the planet. Our purchasing power is an important tool.

Together, we can phase out excessive plastics and build a cleaner future.

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