‘Safe’ Subs for Harmful Chemical in Plastics May Be Just as Risky to Health

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To make matters worse, the study authors say that the process for substituting the chemicals used in manufacturing is fairly flawed, which is why we’re seeing harmful replacements. (Photo: Getty Images)

Replacing harmful chemicals used for manufacturing is a good thing, but not if those replacements produce the same effects. According to new research out of NYU Langone Medical Center, two such substitutes used to strengthen items like plastic wrap, food containers, and soap have been linked to a higher risk of diabetes and high blood pressure in children.

Lead study author Leonardo Trasande, MD, an associate professor at NYU Langone, and his team had previously found that the chemical di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, or DEHP, found in many plastic products was linked to these same risks. As a result of this research, DEHP has slowly been replaced by the phthalate compounds diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) over the last decade in the United States.

Is it ever safe to reuse plastic food containers? (Video: Yahoo Health) 

In the team’s most recent study, published in Hypertension, the researchers looked at data from participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected between 2008 and 2012. This included measurements taken and evaluated for phthalates and glucose in the blood samples of 356 children and adolescents aged 12 to 19, analyzing the participants’ urinary levels of DINP and DIDP.

The researchers found a “significant association” between high blood pressure and DINP and DIDP levels in the blood. To break it down, there was a 1.1-millimeters-of-mercury increase in blood pressure for every tenfold rise in phthalates. In a May study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the scientists also found the phthalates were linked to increased insulin resistance, which is a steppingstone to diabetes. One in three children with the highest DINP levels also possessed the highest insulin resistance.

In both studies, the results held true even after researchers controlled for compounding factors like diet, physical activity, gender, race/ethnicity, and income. And overall, these new study outcomes present very similar concerns to those surrounding DEHP.

Phthalates in general have made news recently for their negative health effects, especially in developing and unborn children. One study from late last year out of Columbia University linked prenatal exposure to the chemicals to lower IQ; another found phthalates were associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma. Yet they’re still found in many household items and plastic goods.

According to Trasande, the process for substituting the chemicals used in manufacturing is fairly flawed, which is why we’re seeing harmful replacements. “As it stands, the regulatory framework is such that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty,” he tells Yahoo Health. “It’s a situation where health concerns emerge without checking the safety.”

That said, Trasande says you can cut down on potentially problematic phthalate exposure. “There are a few safe and simple steps families can take,” he says. They are:

  •     Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers and food that is covered in plastic wrap.

  •     Avoid machine dishwashing, where harsh detergents and other chemicals tend to etch and scratch, allowing plasticizers to more readily leach into food. Wash by hand instead, and toss out worn plastic goods with lots of scratches.

  •     Avoid using plastic containers labeled with 3, 6, or 7 on the bottom, inside the tiny recycle symbol. Phthalates are generally used in the manufacturing of these items.

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