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Plastic may increase the risk of high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, study finds

There are both health and environmental concerns linked with plastic use

Woman holding plastic bottles for recycling
Photo (c) Sally Anscombe - Getty Images
Single-use plastic items are convenient in consumers’ day-to-day lives, but the remnants they leave behind can be harmful to both the environment and people’s health. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Riverside found that exposure to dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP), a chemical used in plastics, may increase consumers’ risk of developing high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. 

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to show the effects of DCHP exposure on high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease risk in mouse models,” said researcher Changcheng Zhou. “Our results provide insights and new understandings of the impact of plastic-associated chemicals on high cholesterol – or dyslipidemia – and cardiovascular disease risk.” 

Plastic may come with health risks

The researchers conducted their study on mice to get a better idea of how exposure to chemicals used in plastics can be harmful to consumers’ health. They explored specifically how DCHP affected the mice’s pregnane X receptor (PXR), which is responsible in the body for sensing toxic substances. 

Ultimately, the study showed that exposure to DCHP was linked to health risks for the mice. The researchers learned that higher exposure to the chemical increased the mice’s plasma cholesterol levels. 

“We found dicyclohexyl phthalate, or DCHP, strongly binds to a receptor called pregnane X receptor, or PXR,” said Zhou. “DCHP ‘turns on’ PXR in the gut, including the expression of key proteins required for cholesterol absorption and transport. Our experiments show that DCHP elicits high cholesterol by targeting intestinal PXR signaling.” 

The researchers also found that when PXR is compromised in this way, it can be detrimental to heart health. The study showed that the mice were more likely to have higher traces of fatty molecules called ceramides in their intestines as a result of both DCHP exposure and PXR activation. When these ceramides are present, it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

“This, too, points to the potentially important role of PXR in contributing to the harmful effects of plastic-associated chemicals on cardiovascular health in humans,” said Zhou. 

While more work needs to be done to better understand the full scope of how DCHP can impact consumers’ health, the researchers hope these findings highlight some of the risks associated with plastics. 

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