F(HealthDay News) — Premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) may be exposed to levels of di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) that are 4,000 to 160,000 times higher than what is considered safe, according to a study published online November 13 in the Journal of Perinatology.

The chemical is used to increase the flexibility of many medical products made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, including intravenous tubing, catheters, endotracheal bags, and fluid and blood product bags. DEHP doesn’t bind with PVC and can leak into fluids and body tissues that come in contact with it, explained the authors of the study.

“It’s remarkable that the care of sick and developmentally vulnerable preterm infants depends on an environment composed almost entirely of plastic,” study leader Eric Mallow, MD, a neonatologist and senior research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in a Hopkins news release. “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.”

However, a group representing the chemical industry took issue with that stand. The American Chemistry Council pointed to statements on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s web page regarding DEHP. “It is possible that the effects observed in animal studies could occur in humans,” the FDA states. “However, there are no human studies to date that show such effects. DEHP-containing devices have been used on newborn babies for many years without apparent ill effects, although studies have not been conducted which would rule out effects on humans.” The agency goes on to say that, “the risk of not doing a needed procedure is far greater than the risk associated with exposure to DEHP [in equipment].”

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