Hospitalized premature infants are exposed to unsafe levels of a chemical found in numerous medical products used to treat them, raising questions about whether critically ill newborns may be adversely affected by equipment designed to help save their lives.
The chemical, di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), is used to increase flexibility of many plastic devices. These products, made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), include most intravenous tubing, catheters, endotracheal tubes, and fluid and blood product bags. DEHP doesn’t bind chemically to PVC, and is able to leach into fluids and body tissues in contact with it. New Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests that critically ill preterm infants may be exposed to DEHP at levels approximately 4,000 to 160,000 times higher than those believed to be safe. Infants can receive high exposures to DEHP during weeks to months of treatment in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
The results are reported online November 13 date by the Journal of Perinatology.
“It’s remarkable that the care of sick and developmentally vulnerable preterm infants depends on an environment composed almost entirely of plastic,” says neonatologist Dr. Eric B. Mallow, a senior research program coordinator at the Bloomberg School and the study’s leader. “The role of these synthetic materials in the clinical course of our patients remains almost completely unexplored. PVC is the predominant flexible plastic in most NICUs, and this can result in considerable DEHP exposures during intensive care.”