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Ask the Expert: Can the chemicals in plastics cause premature birth?

Some environmental chemicals commonly found in plastics are associated with a higher risk of preterm birth

Q: I'M PREGNANT, and I've read that chemicals in plastic can increase the risk of premature birth. What are these chemicals, and should I try to avoid them until at least after my baby's born?

A: Jennifer Yland, an epidemiology researcher at Harvard University's TH Chan School of Public Health in the USA, who led a recent study into whether chemicals in plastic interfere with pregnancy, says: "Research suggests some environmental chemicals commonly found in plastics and personal care products, such as phthalates and phenols, are associated with a higher risk of preterm birth.

"We measured urinary levels of di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and bisphenol-A (BPA) prior to conception and during pregnancy among 396 women undergoing fertility treatment, and found women with the highest levels of DEHP in the pre-conception period had a twofold higher risk of preterm birth, compared to women with the lowest levels of this chemical."

"These chemicals, sometimes referred to as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), may be harmful because they interfere with our endocrine system. In the pre-conception period, they may disrupt egg development by promoting inflammatory processes. However, there are a range of possible mechanisms by which these chemicals may influence reproduction and development.

"Exposure to these chemicals is widespread as they have diverse consumer and industrial applications. For example, some phthalates are used to soften plastics or can be used as solvents and can be found in cosmetics, toys, food packaging, and medical devices. Phenols like BPA are used to make resins and plastics and are found in food can liners, hard plastic containers, and thermal paper sales receipts.

"It's important to note that 'BPA-free' plastic products often substitute BPA for other bisphenols, like BPS. While the potential effects of these chemicals aren't yet fully understood, they may behave like BPA.

Cooking from scratch can help you avoid BPA packaging: "It would be unrealistic to try to avoid all phthalates and phenols. However, there are some steps that can be taken to reduce exposure; pregnant women may wish to swap plastic food containers for glass or stainless steel, avoid polycarbonate plastics, try to avoid heating plastic containers, reduce use of canned foods in favour of fresh or jarred foods, or try to use phthalate-free cosmetics and unscented personal care and household products.

"These steps can be adopted by everyone, not only pregnant women, as the effects of these chemicals aren't limited to pregnancy. Thus, while it may not be possible to completely avoid these chemicals, pregnant women and couples trying to conceive should take steps to reduce their exposure."

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