May 7, 2024

Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D.

Woodruff studies how harmful chemicals and pollutants impact health, pregnancy, and child development. She also leads efforts to translate scientific information into actionable change in the clinic and through public policy. (Photo courtesy of Tracey Woodruff/UCSF)

Increased production of petrochemicals, which include plastics and other oil-derived chemicals, is linked to rising rates of cancer, diabetes, infertility, and other chronic health conditions, according to a review article authored by Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS-funded Environmental Research and Translation for Health Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Woodruff highlights key roles that healthcare professionals can play at the individual and policy levels to help people avoid exposure to these chemicals.

Petrochemical production has grown 15-fold since the 1950s, according to Woodruff. As use of these chemicals has increased, prevalence of certain health conditions has also expanded.

“In the United States, for example, between 1990 and 2019, increases in the rates of neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer ranged from 28-150%,” she wrote.

Many petrochemicals are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), meaning they interfere with the body’s hormone, or endocrine, system. Dysfunctional hormonal activity can affect health and increase the risk of certain diseases. People can be exposed to EDCs, such as PFAS and phthalates, through plastics, food packaging, cosmetics, and other everyday products.

Although EDCs are ubiquitous, individual exposure levels vary. Populations that typically experience health disparities — including women of color, low-income communities, and low-wage workers — are also disproportionately exposed to these chemicals, according to Woodruff.

She called on clinicians to talk about EDCs with their patients, particularly those at higher risk for exposure. The review includes recommendations health professionals can use to help patients avoid the chemicals.

Woodruff also noted the role of clinicians and medical societies to facilitate societal-level change by supporting policies to reduce EDC exposures, particularly among populations with a higher chemical burden, as well as polices aimed at reducing fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

“People can reduce exposures to some chemicals through individual actions, but most exposures are beyond individual control,” she wrote.

Read the review, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, to learn more.