phthalatesThere has been growing concern about the dangers of exposure to the chemical phthalate, and now a new study shows an association between a woman’s exposure to phthalate and preterm birth. Each year, preterm birth puts 500,000 babies at great risk for death and disability. A variety of factors contributes to preterm births, including smoking and use of alcohol or illicit substances. Currently, many scientists think exposure to environmental chemicals – especially phthalates – increase the risk for reproductive problems including preterm birth.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used extensively in manufacturing to make plastic products more durable. Phthalates also work as solvents to other chemicals and found extensively in health and beauty products, such as soaps, shampoos, lotions, hairspray and nail polish. This chemical is so abundant in everyday products that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences calls it the “everywhere chemical.”

The human body breaks phthalates into smaller metabolites then washes out these metabolites through urine and feces. A doctor can assess a patient’s exposure to phthalates by looking for these metabolites in urine samples.

Metabolites can interact with each other to enhance the negative effects of phthalate exposure. Previous research showed exposure to phthalates might disrupt hormones levels in both genders and increase a woman’s risk for endometriosis and breast cancer. Researchers in this newest study wanted to investigate the association between environmental exposure to this chemical and preterm births.

In this new study, researchers recruited 482 women who delivered babies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, between 2006 and 2008. Of these participants, 130 delivered their babies before 37 weeks of gestation. The scientists used the other 352 women who delivered on time as a control group. The researchers gathered and analyzed the participants’ demographic information, data on birth outcomes, and laboratory tests including several urine samples to test for the presence of phthalates.

When the scientists analyzed the results, they saw high levels of phthalate metabolites in the urine of women who had preterm births. The researchers were able to associated specific metabolites, MEHP, MECPP, and Σ DEHP, with significantly higher odds of preterm birth.

The researchers stressed the importance of avoiding phthalates during pregnancy to reduce the risk for preterm births.


  • Ferguson KK, McElrath TF, Meeker JD. Environmental Phthalate Exposure and Preterm Birth. JAMA Pediatr. 2013. Web. Retrieved 25 Nov 2013.
  • "Preterm Birth." CDC. 30 Oct 2013. Web. Retrieved 25 Nov 2013.
  • Zero Breast Cancer. "Phthalates, the Everywhere Chemical." National Institutes of Health. PDF file. Retrieved 25 Nov 2013.