Common chemicals found in packaging, cosmetics and toys linked to heart disease, early death

A type of chemical used widely in toys, shampoo, cosmetics, detergents and plastic food packaging could be shortening our lives, a new study has found. 

Phthalates are known to interfere with our hormones, and have been linked to obesity, diabetes, infertility and heart disease. They're useful because they make plastics soft and flexible and act as fragrances in personal care products, but can leach into the food chain. 

Researchers in the US say analysis of more than 5000 middle-aged adults has found those with high levels of phthalates in their urine were more likely to die than those with low or average levels, particularly of 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," said study lead author Leonardo Trasande of the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Their estimate is 100,000 Americans die earlier than they otherwise would have thanks to the presence of phthalates, and the economic damage could be as high as US$47 billion. 

The mechanism of how phthalates cause fatal heart disease remains unclear, but is being investigated.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

"This study adds to the growing database on the impact of plastics on the human body and bolsters public health and business cases for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics."

In 2017, a Ministry of Primary Industries report found phthalates in butter, fresh meat, and takeaway noodles in New Zealand, having leached through packaging.

Earlier this year a researcher claimed phthalates were reducing men's sperm counts so much, by 2045 most couples would need expert help making babies

Prominent US reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan also told RNZ there was evidence phthalates could be behind the rise of gender fluidity and the number of transgender people. Her conclusions have been challenged by other experts.