Children's exposure to phthalates may increase their risk of cancer, study finds

Photo (c) Alona Siniehina - Getty Images

Phthalates are found in everything from food packaging to detergents and cosmetic products

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Vermont explored how exposure to phthalates may affect kids’ long-term health. 

While the chemical is used in many everyday goods -- including perfumes, detergents, and fast food packaging -- the study findings show that exposure to phthalates may also increase children’s risk of cancer. 

“These results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that these ubiquitous chemicals have a negative impact on human health,” said researcher Thomas Ahern, Ph.D. “Our study characterized phthalate exposure based on prescription fills for phthalate-containing medications. While such exposures are typically much higher magnitude than what we would call ‘background’ environmental exposure, our findings warrant concern.” 

Assessing children’s cancer risk

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 1.3 million children born in Denmark between 1997 and 2017. They also looked at information from the Danish National Prescription Registry to understand how children were exposed to phthalates through prescriptions both in the womb and during childhood. The team compared both datasets to understand how phthalates affected kids’ cancer risk. 

The study showed that exposure to phthalates during childhood was linked with a 20% higher risk of cancer. The risk of lymphoma was twice as high for those exposed to higher levels of phthalates, and the risk of osteosarcoma was three times as high for those with the highest phthalate exposure. 

The team explained that the chemical significantly affects hormone levels. This can affect the function of several important organs over time, which may increase the risk of childhood cancer. 

“Although more studies are needed, exposure to phthalates has been linked to thyroid, breast, and other solid tumors,” said researcher Frances Carr, Ph.D. “Phthalates, like other plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), are ubiquitous in the environment; age of exposure, as well as chronic low dose exposures, are significant risk factors for adverse health effects.” 

The researchers say the goal now is to work to minimize health risks by limiting kids’ exposure to phthalates. They hope to do more work in this area to better understand which specific chemicals pose the biggest risk to kids’ health. 

“While no direct correlation has been made between phthalates in our region and increased cancer risk, this study highlights the importance of environmental exposures and their relationship to cancer risk,” said researcher Dr. Randall Holcombe. “Ultimately, research like this will lead to a better understanding of how to mitigate the risks of environmental phthalates.” 

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