Harmful Plastics: Press Release

EHHI Releases Research Report, Plastics That May be Harmful to Children and Reproductive Health

Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) has released a groundbreaking report on the health effects of plastics, particularly risks to children and reproductive health. EHHI is a non-profit organization composed of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harms.

The study focuses on the health effects from two chemicals found in some plastics — bisphenol A (BPA) and the phthalate DEHP. BPA is found in hard, clear plastic products and DEHP is added to plastics to soften them.

The lead author of the research report is John Wargo, Ph.D., professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, with two contributing authors from the Yale School of Medicine, Hugh S. Taylor, M.D., and Mark R. Cullen, M.D.

BPA and DEHP are found in both infant and baby products, as well as many everyday consumer items. Both chemicals are hormonally active in test animals, with BPA mimicking estrogen and DEHP blocking testosterone. Government-sponsored studies have found that BPA is biologically active in exceptionally small doses.

Although the U.S. government has the authority to regulate or prohibit the production, sale and disposal of both BPA and DEHP, BPA is virtually unregulated by the federal government and DEHP is ineffectively regulated through volunteer agreements.

John Wargo, professor of Risk Analysis and Environmental Policy at Yale University, summarized the research group’s findings, “We’ve reviewed hundreds of scientific studies on these chemicals and discovered that this is a far more serious problem than most believe. The plastics industry has escaped serious regulatory attention by federal and state authorities, while producing billions of pounds of resins each year used to manufacture thousands of products. Almost none of it is recycled, and most is buried or incinerated, which explains its presence in soils, groundwater and even air.”

"Worse yet, BPA and DEHP are now present in the tissues of most people tested, with highest concentrations in children. Evidence that BPA and DEHP are hormonally active is now sufficient to switch the burden of proof to the plastics industry to demonstrate their safety before they market products likely to become part of children’s environments. Consumers now have no way to identify these chemicals in products, meaning that exposures continue without the public’s knowledge or consent. If Congress, state and local governments follow our recommendations, human exposures could be significantly reduced,” Wargo added.

Besides BPA and DEHP being detected in the blood and urine of nearly everyone who has been tested, they are also found in human breast milk, and both compounds cross the placenta and the blood-brain barrier.

Nearly 100 billion pounds of plastic are produced in the U.S. each year. Plastics are now heavily used in food and beverage packaging, toys, medical devices, and many household products. Plastics comprise nearly 70 percent of the synthetic chemical industry in the nation. Because the plastic labeling system was devised to simply facilitate recycling, the public is kept completely uninformed about which plastics contain which chemicals. Plastics are not labeled for that purpose.

Bisphenol A has been linked to a number of adverse health outcomes. There is growing concern that fetal exposures can lead to obesity, and that has been corroborated by studies in mice. One study found that female mice whose mothers were exposed to BPA from early pregnancy through day 16 of lactation showed increased weight in adulthood. There was no difference in the food intake or activity levels between the mice who became fat and the mice that did not.

As well, normal breast cells exposed to low levels of BPA expressed genes characteristic of aggressive breast cancer cells, and exposures have shown reduced sperm production in mice. Moreover, exposure to BPA in male rats a few days after birth predisposed male rats to develop prostate cancer in adulthood.

“While the final verdict on the risks of BPA may remain uncertain for years, the evidence for harm is already strong enough, as this report makes crystal clear, to immediately start protecting potentially vulnerable people — especially children — from any unnecessary exposures,” said Dr. Mark Cullen, professor of Medicine and Public Health, Yale University School of Medicine.

As for the phthalate DEHP, in the last several years, scientists have noted health effects in animals given low, environmentally relevant doses of DEHP. 

Prenatal and lactational exposure to DEHP reduced daily sperm production and induced reproductive abnormalities in male offspring rats. Several studies reported an association between phthalate exposure and sperm damage in men. In 2003, researchers from Harvard University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that men with low sperm counts and impaired sperm quality are more likely to have higher phthalate levels. Highest phthalate concentrations were found in men with the lowest sperm counts.

A study of low, environmentally relevant DEHP levels on testicular function reported that “low levels of DEHP may shift the body's hormonal equilibrium to a higher level as the endocrine system struggles to overcome the anti-androgenic propensities of the chemical. The overall increase in circulating testosterone is sufficient to significantly speed the onset of puberty in male rats.”

DEHP has also been associated with allergic responses. Exposures to DEHP have produced enhanced atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions in mice at very low levels. Several recent studies report an association between DEHP and respiratory illness, including asthma.

A Swedish study found a positive association between allergic asthma in children and DEHP in house dust, noting that DEHP in house dust correlated with the amount of PVC in flooring. One study suggests that development of lung problems in the first two years of life may be linked to exposure to plastic interior surfaces. A survey of asthmatics found that 30 percent of people with asthma reported that air fresheners caused breathing difficulties. Pre-term infants exposed to DEHP from respiratory tubing have been reported to have a higher risk of bronchial asthma.

A recent study reported that men with higher levels of the DEHP metabolite MEHP in their urine had lower levels of two major thyroid hormones in their blood. Thyroid hormones influence cell growth and brain development in children.

“These plastics may damage a fetus or a child. Preventing exposures to harmful chemicals is the most important thing we can give to the next generation,” said Dr. Hugh Taylor, professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, Yale University School of Medicine, and contributing author on this report.

EHHI’s report lays out where many products containing both BPA and DEHP can be found and how consumers can try to avoid them. The report also has recommendations for the federal, state and local governments, and individuals.

EHHI’s report lays out where many products containing both BPA and DEHP can be found and how consumers can try to avoid them. The report also has recommendations for the federal, state and local governments, and individuals.