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Phthalates in Food Packaging Lead to 100,000 Deaths in U.S. Each Year, Study Finds

Health + Wellness
Food packaged in plastic on an airline dinner tray.
Food packaged in plastic on an airline dinner tray. Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A new study has found that chemicals known as phthalates found in plastic food packaging and other consumer goods are killing 91,000 to 107,000 older adults in the U.S. each year.


The study, published in Environmental Pollution on Oct.12, 2021, outlines the dangers of phthalates in food packaging, although these chemicals are also found in shampoos, nail polish, creams, and even baby lotions.

The researchers found that adults aged 55 to 64 with the highest exposure to phthalates are more likely to die from all causes, particularly cardiovascular disease, compared to their counterparts with lower exposure. They found that 90,761 to 107,283 people in this age group with heightened exposure had died.

Those deaths have a great economic impact, too, at an estimated $39.9 to $47.1 billion in lost economic productivity.

To come to these findings, the team analyzed urine samples of over 5,000 U.S. adults that participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey, with a special focus on people ages 55 to 64 in order to compare their results with previous studies.

"Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought," said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, lead author of the study and director of NYU Langone's Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards. "The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans' physical and financial wellbeing."

Phthalates, also known as plasticizers, are a group of chemicals that make plastic more durable. These chemicals are somewhat restricted for use in toys, but monitoring of these chemicals in food packaging or personal care items is minimal. Many people ingest or breathe in phthalates, because they are found in everything from flooring to personal care products to plastic packages on food.

According to the FDA, "Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, are not subject to FDA approval before they go on the market... At the present time, FDA does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk."

The CDC notes that phthalates do show an effect on reproductive systems in animals, but the impact on humans is not fully known. The CDC has also found that phthalate exposure is widespread among the general U.S. population.

That's why the researchers behind this new study are now urging more regulations against phthalates. Dr. Trasande said that this study doesn't establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between phthalates and death, but it does raise concerns about the widespread exposure to these chemicals in the U.S.

"While further studies are needed to corroborate observations and identify mechanisms, regulatory action is urgently needed," the study authors wrote.

Now, the researchers are planning to study the effect of phthalates on human hormones and inflammation to see if there are further links between these pervasive chemicals and public health.

Based in Los Angeles, Paige Bennett is a writer who is passionate about sustainability. Aside from writing for EcoWatch, Paige also writes for Insider, HomeAdvisor, Thrillist, EuroCheapo, Eat This, Not That! and more. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Ohio University and holds a certificate in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also specialized in sustainable agriculture while pursuing her undergraduate degree. When she's not writing, Paige enjoys decorating her apartment, enjoying a cup of coffee and experimenting in the kitchen (with local, seasonal ingredients, of course!).

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that phthalates are known as PFAS.

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