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Premature Infants Exposed To Unsafe Levels In Chemical Products

First Posted: Nov 13, 2014 10:44 AM EST

Many premature infants will thrive in hospital conditions with supportive care, rest and supervision.

Yet recent findings published in the journal Periantology show that many of these newborns are frequently exposed to unsafe levels of a chemical that can be found in medical products. 

"It's remarkable that the care of sick and developmentally vulnerable preterm infants depends on an environment composed almost entirely of plastic," said lead study author,neonatologist Eric B. Mallow, MD, MPH, a senior research program coordinator at the Bloomberg School, in a news release. "The role of these synthetic materials in the clinical course of our patients remains almost completely unexplored. PVC [polyvinyl chloride] is the predominant flexible plastic in most NICUs, and this can result in considerable DEHP exposures during intensive care."

Researchers have identified a chemical known as di(2 ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP). It is typically found in plastic devices that help to increase flexibility, and can be found via intravenous tubing, catheters, endotracheal tubes and blood bags that are oftentimes needed for premature babies.

Foir the study, researchers measured the levels of DHEP in critically ill premature infants and found that exposure levels were about 4,000 to 160,000 times higher than levels that are considered to be safe. Exposure occurred for weeks to months of treatment at the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

"We were floored by how high the exposures are when you look at all of the devices together," co-investigator Mary A. Fox, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, said reported in the press release. "It's a population that we know is vulnerable to begin with. They're struggling to survive. And the concern now is whether this phthalate exposure is actually contributing to their problems when these medical products are supposed to be helping them get better."

Furthermore, researchers said they believe that DEHP could hold a range of non-endocrine toxic effects-causing short-term and long-term health in preemies.

For instance, animal studies have shown that increasing inflammation and disrupting the development of certain organs can be a result.

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the article, "Phthalates and critically ill neonates:device-related exposures and non-endocrine toxic risks."

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