‘These toxic pollutants are everywhere, and their usage is not banned’
For the first time, scientists at Northwestern Medicine have demonstrated a causal link between environmental phthalates (toxic chemicals found in everyday consumer products) and the increased growth of uterine fibroids, the most common tumors among women, findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Manufacturers use environmental phthalates in numerous industrial and consumer products, and they’ve also been detected in medical supplies and food. Although they are known to be toxic, they are currently unbanned in the U.S.
“These toxic pollutants are everywhere, including food packaging, hair and makeup products, and more, and their usage is not banned,” said corresponding study author Serdar Bulun, MD, the chair and John J. Sciarra Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a Northwestern Medicine physician. “These are more than simply environmental pollutants. They can cause specific harm to human tissues.”
Up to 80 percent of all women may develop a fibroid tumor during their lifetime, Bulun said. One-quarter of these women become symptomatic with excessive and uncontrolled uterine bleeding, anemia, miscarriages, infertility and large abdominal tumors necessitating technically difficult surgeries.
The new study found women with a high exposure to certain phthalates such as DEHP (used as a plasticizer to increase the durability of products such as shower curtains, car upholstery, lunchboxes, shoes and more) and its metabolites have a high risk for having a symptomatic fibroid.
Prior epidemiological studies have consistently indicated an association between phthalate exposure and uterine fibroid growth, but this study explains the mechanisms behind that link. The scientists discovered exposure to DEHP may activate a hormonal pathway that activates an environmentally responsive receptor (AHR) to bind to DNA and cause increased growth of fibroid tumors.
“Interestingly, AHR was cloned in the early ’90s as the receptor for dioxin, the key toxin in the agent orange,” Bulun said. “The use of agent orange during the Vietnam war caused significant reproductive abnormalities in the exposed populations; and dioxin and AHR were thought to be responsible for this.”
This new study, Bulun said, provides further evidence to support these theories.
More about DEHP
DEHP has been the most widely used phthalate. Although there has been increased concern in the public and some regulatory restrictions in European Union countries, it is still widely used for the packaging of food and health products in the U.S. and across the world. DEHP can be gradually released from consumer products into indoor environments such as homes, schools, daycare centers, offices and cars. It settles on floors and other surfaces and can accumulate in dust and air. During pregnancy, DEHP can pass from mother to baby.
The study is titled, “Mono-(2-ethyl-5-hydroxyhexyl) phthalate promotes uterine leiomyoma cell survival through tryptophan-kynurenine-AHR pathway activation.” Other co-authors from Northwestern include Ping Yin, MD, PhD, research associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Division of Reproductive Science in Medicine; Takashi Iizuka, PhD; Stacy Kujawa and John Coon, MS.
Funding for this study was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (grant P50 HD098580) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (grant R01 ES026956), both of the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture AgBioResearch.