Uterine fibroid is the most common benign female tumor: it affects one in three women and although in most cases it goes unnoticed, it can lead to bleeding, anemia, miscarriages and infertility. For the first time, researchers from the Northwestern Medicine have demonstrated a causal link between this benign neoplasm and environmental phthalates, toxic chemicals found in dozens of everyday products.
What are phthalates and what are they for?
Phthalates are universally recognized as toxic but are still used, especially at an industrial level. They are added to plastics to improve their flexibility and mouldability, but are found everywhere from car upholstery to nail polish as well as in medicines and food containers.
In Europe they are partly banned, restricted or restricted in concentrations above 0.1%. A few days ago, lots of children’s balloons were recalled and withdrawn from the Italian market due to the presence of banned phthalates.
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However, these prohibitions do not apply to items exclusively for industrial, agricultural or outdoor use provided that no material comes into contact with the human mucosa or skin, as well as to all items purchased abroad or placed on the market before the July 7, 2020.
dispersion in the environment
Now this research just published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also turns the spotlight on their dispersion in the environment.
“They are more than just environmental pollutants and can cause specific damage to human tissue,” he explains Find a SerdarHead of Obstetrics and Gynecology Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University, lead author of the research. “Phthalates are everywhere, including in food packaging, hair and makeup products, and their use is not prohibited here in the United States.”
Dehp, endocrine disruptor
The new study found that women with high exposure to certain phthalates such as diethylhexyl phthalate — DEHP, the plasticizer most frequently used to soften PVC medical devices — exhibit increased and otherwise unexplained growth of uterine fibroids. And the researchers hope it could be one more reason to permanently ban these chemicals.
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Previous epidemiological studies had already indicated an association between phthalate exposure and uterine fibroid growth, but “we have now managed to find the mechanisms underlying this link”, announce the American researchers.
Dehp is to all intents and purposes an endocrine disruptor capable of triggering a hormonal pathway that activates the kynurenine pathway. The endocrine system participates in the regulation of numerous physiological functions of the organism such as reproduction, immunity and human behavior through hormones. That’s why endocrine disruptors can cause adverse effects, by turning off or changing the signals sent by hormones.
In this specific case, diethylhexyl phthalate can control the kynurenines which act by binding to a receptor, Ahr, which is located on the cytoplasm of the cells and acts as a switch: it usually protects us from dangerous autoimmune reactions, but it also serves the tumor to escape the defenses of the organism.
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“Interestingly, Ahr is also the receptor for aryl hydrocarbons, and the use of dioxin during the Vietnam War caused significant reproductive abnormalities in exposed populations,” Bulun said, speculating on another possible “activator” of uterine fibroids.
l Dehp can pass to the fetus during pregnancy
Internationally, Dehp is the most widely used phthalate. “Although there has been growing concern and some restrictions have been implemented in European Union countries, it is still widely used for packaging food and healthcare products in the United States and around the world. It can be released gradually from consumer products in indoor environments such as homes, schools, daycare centers, offices and cars. It settles on floors and other surfaces and can build up in the dust and air we inhale and touch. During pregnancy, Dehp can also pass to the fetus,” concludes the gynecologist, convinced of the fact that something must be done as soon as possible to limit its use and diffusion in the environment.