Scientists at Northwestern Medicine have demonstrated a causal link between di-(2-ethylhexyl) (DEHP), a phthalate commonly used in food packaging, and uterine fibroid growth. DEHP is one of the most widely used phthalates in consumer goods, and it has been associated with a number of negative health consequences.

The Northwestern Medicine study sought to explain the mechanisms behind the association between phthalate exposure and uterine fibroid growth. The scientists discovered that exposure to DEHP may activate a hormonal pathway that triggers an environmentally responsive receptor to bind to DNA and cause increased growth of fibroid tumors.

The study also revealed that women with a high exposure to certain phthalates such as DEHP, which is often used as a plasticizer, and its metabolites have a high risk for having a symptomatic fibroid. Such tumors can lead to uncontrolled bleeding, anemia, miscarriages, and infertility.

The researchers stress that phthalates such as DHEP are more than simple environmental pollutants—they can cause specific harm to human tissues. However, the substances are still widely used for the packaging of food products in the U.S. and globally.