Phthalates, man-made chemicals used in a variety of products, may have endocrine-disruptive effects in reproductive-age women, increasing or decreasing their risk of endometriosis, according to a new study by the University of Washington School of Public Health. Researchers found that a majority of the 287 women they studied through an integrated healthcare delivery system in Washington state had detectable concentrations of phthalate metabolites in their urine. Phthalates are used to soften and add flexibility to plastics or as solvents or fixatives.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, found that one metabolite of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) was linked to a strong decreased risk of endometriosis, a condition where the lining of the uterus grows outside the organ, often resulting in chronic pelvic pain and infertility.
“We were not surprised with this result as prior animal laboratory studies have demonstrated that DEHP is toxic to ovaries and reduces the production of hormones, including estrogen,” said lead author Dr. Kristen Upson, who earned a PhD in epidemiology earlier this year from the University of Washington. “Because endometriosis is an estrogen-driven disease, it makes sense that a chemical that reduces estrogen production may reduce the risk of endometriosis.”
Researchers observed that different phthalates may alter the risk of endometriosis in different ways. For example, the metabolites of two phthalates studied may be associated with increased risk of the disease. Little is known in this area, despite the majority of women being exposed to phthalates. Further research is needed to confirm their findings and to understand the biological mechanism of how phthalates may alter disease risk.
The research was supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Nursing Research, Environmental Protection Agency, and University of Washington School of Public Health department of epidemiology.
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[Photo: Dr. Kristen Upson]