PREGNANT women who are exposed to chemicals known as phthalates found in plastics, lotions and food packaging may face higher odds of giving birth prematurely, a US study said on Monday.
The finding is important because prematurity is a leading cause of infant death around the world, said the report in the Journal Of The American Medical Association.
"Our results indicate a significant association between exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and preterm birth," said the study led by Kelly Ferguson of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
"This data provides strong support for taking action in the prevention or reduction of phthalate exposure during pregnancy." Phthalates are commonly found in perfume, hair spray, nail polish, deodorant and body lotion.
They are also used in packaging, plastic toys, vinyl, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.
The study was carried out at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
A total of 130 women who gave birth before full term took part, along with 352 control participants.
Researchers analysed the women's urine samples at different times throughout their pregnancies for levels of phthalate metabolites. The higher the exposure, the more likely it was that the women would give birth too early.
"The evidence reported in this new study is strong enough to encourage pregnant women to avoid phthalates if possible, to help minimise their chances of premature birth," said Dr Sarah Robertson, director of The Robinson Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
"The good news is that it's possible to reduce exposure fairly quickly by reading labels and choosing products carefully, using fragrance-free cosmetics, and fresh rather than packaged food."
Some 15 million babies around the world are born preterm, or before 37 weeks in the womb.
Rates have been climbing over the past two decades across the globe, with the highest rates in South-east Asia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.