Uterine Fibroid Growth Activated by Chemicals in Everyday Products: For Journalists

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  • Up to 80% of all women may develop a fibroid in their lifetime
  • Tumors can lead to uncontrolled bleeding, anemia, miscarriages, infertility
  • Chemicals found in shower curtains, car upholstery, lunch boxes, shoes, food and more

CHICAGO — 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 in the women.

Manufacturers use environmental phthalates in many industrial and consumer products, and they have also been detected in medical supplies and food. Although they are known to be poisonous, they are currently banned in the United States.

“These toxic pollutants are everywhere, including food packaging, hair and makeup products, and more, and their use is not banned,” said the study’s corresponding author, Dr Serdar Bulun, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a physician in Northwestern Medicine. “These are more than just environmental pollutants. They can cause specific damage to human tissue.

Up to 80% of all women can develop a fibroid in their lifetime, Bulun said. A quarter of these women become symptomatic with excessive and uncontrolled uterine bleeding, anemia, miscarriages, infertility and large abdominal tumors requiring technically difficult surgeries.

The new study found that women with high exposure to certain phthalates such as DEHP (used as a plasticizer to increase the durability of products such as shower curtains, car upholstery, lunch boxes, shoes, etc.) and its metabolites have a high risk of having symptomatic fibroids.

The study will be published the week of November 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The media blackout was lifted at 3 p.m. (ET) on November 14.

Previous epidemiological studies have consistently indicated an association between phthalate exposure and uterine fibroid growth, but this study elucidates the mechanisms behind this link. Scientists have found that exposure to DEHP can activate a hormonal pathway that activates an environmentally sensitive receptor (AHR) to bind to DNA and cause increased fibroid growth.

“Interestingly, AHR was cloned in the early 1990s as a receptor for dioxin, the key toxin in Agent Orange,” Bulun said. “Use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War caused significant reproductive abnormalities in exposed populations; and dioxin and AHR were thought to be responsible.

This new study, Bulun said, provides additional evidence to support these theories.

Learn more about DEHP:

DEHP is the most commonly used phthalate. Although there has been growing public concern and some regulatory restrictions in European Union countries, it is still widely used for packaging food and health products in the United States and around the world. DEHP can be gradually released from consumer products in indoor environments such as homes, schools, daycares, 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 activation of the tryptophan-kynurenine-AHR pathway.” Other Northwestern co-authors include Dr. Ping Yin, Dr. Takashi Iizuka, Stacy Kujawa, and John Coon.

Funding for this study was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50 grant HD098580) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R01 grant ES026956), both National Institutes of Health and US Department. of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture AgBioResearch.

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