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Chemical common in consumer products may affect important pregnancy hormone, study finds

  • Zoë Read/WHYY
In this 2012 photo, people walk by the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine research building and School of Public Health of The University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, in Piscataway, N.J.

Mel Evans / AP Photo

In this 2012 photo, people walk by the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine research building and School of Public Health of The University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, in Piscataway, N.J.

Exposure to a class of chemicals commonly found in consumer products may disrupt a hormone that plays a key role in healthy births, a new Rutgers University study finds.

Researchers at Rutgers say that phthalates (pronounced “THAL-ates”) may disrupt the placental corticotropin releasing hormone, or pCRH, produced by the placenta that is essential to pregnancy. The hormone is also produced by the brain as part of the body’s stress response. Levels of the hormone rise significantly during pregnancy, and may act like a placental clock — telling the body when it’s time to give birth.

Levels of this hormone may rise too early in an individual’s pregnancy if that person is greatly exposed to phthalates, Rutgers scientists say. Researchers now want to know whether this can cause preterm birth, as well as other health effects.

“This [study] is just sort of another nail in the coffin, reinforcing that we need tighter regulation of these chemicals. And that’s something that’s done in Europe, but not so much in the United States,” said lead author Emily Barrett, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey.

Mel Evans / AP Photo

In this 2012 photo, people walk by the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine research building and School of Public Health of The University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, in Piscataway, N.J.

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that make plastics soft and flexible, and are common in consumer products, such as shower curtains. They are also used to hold color and scent in products such as nail polishes and air fresheners. The chemicals also contaminate food, especially processed food and fast food.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that nearly 100% of people have phthalates in their bodies.

“On a daily basis, we are unknowingly inhaling, ingesting and rubbing these chemicals on our skin. They’re very, very common,” Barrett said.

“We’re all sort of unwitting participants in this big, ongoing experiment. We all have measurable exposure to these chemicals. We’re regularly dosing ourselves with phthalates daily without really knowing what the effects will be,” she said. “And what’s kind of troubling about phthalates and other chemicals that disrupt hormones is that a lot of times the impacts are sort of subtle, or they may appear years after the exposure, so they give the false impression that they’re safe because when you apply something to your skin, it’s not giving you a bad reaction, so you assume that it’s safe.”

Scientists previously observed that phthalates interfere with the normal activity of the hormones in the body of mice. The mice had problems with reproduction and metabolism and other essential activities. The effects were most significant when mice were exposed as fetuses. Those results spurred Rutgers to begin studying the effects of phthalates several years ago.

“And so we began to ask ourselves, ‘If we’re all exposed to phthalates and they’re having these negative impacts on mice, what are they doing to us?’” Barrett said.

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