Premature Deaths Linked to Hormone-Disrupting Phthalate Chemicals

A new study has revealed that daily exposure to toxic chemicals called phthalates, commonly used in the manufacture of plastic food containers and many cosmetics, may lead to roughly 100,000 premature deaths among older Americans every year.


For decades, phthalates have been shown to pose a potential danger to human health because the chemicals can interfere with the function of hormones, signaling compounds made in glands that circulate to influence processes throughout the body, experts say. Exposure is believed to occur through buildup of these toxins as consumer products break down and are ingested, with exposure linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Study overview

For the investigation, the research team analyzed data including phthalates found in urine samples obtained from adults who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey from 2001 to 2010. The researchers limited their analysis to those whose cause of death had been tracked through 2015. In addition, they focused on a subgroup of Americans between 55 and 64, since previous studies had based estimates of phthalate-driven death in this population. This way, the team could accurately compare their study results to the prior estimates.

The study investigators also used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wonder database, the U.S. Census Bureau, and models from earlier studies to estimate the economic cost of early death for this group.

Results overview

Results revealed that of the more than 5,000 adults between the ages of 55 and 64 studied,  those with the highest concentrations of phthalate in their urine were more likely to die of heart disease than those with lesser exposure.

Similarly, Americans in this high-exposure group were more likely to die of any cause than those in low-exposure groups. However, high levels of the toxins did not appear to increase risk of death due to cancer.

“Our findings reveal that increased phthalate exposure is linked to early death, particularly due to heart disease. Until now, we have understood that the chemicals connect to heart disease, and heart disease in turn is a leading cause of death, but we had not yet tied the chemicals themselves to death.”

-Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, lead scientist and director, NYU Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards

The Takeaway

“Our research suggests that the toll of this chemical on society is much greater than we first thought. The evidence is undeniably clear that limiting exposure to toxic phthalates can help safeguard Americans’ physical and financial well-being.”


Journal Reference:  Leonardo Trasande, Buyun Liu, Wei Bao. Phthalates and attributable mortality: A population-based longitudinal cohort study and cost analysis. Environmental Pollution, 2021 DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2021.118021