Notes from the NICU: Analyzing the Chemical Content of Commonly Used Medical Products

Now here's a thorny issue. We all know plastics contain constituents and additives designed to make them function better (in terms of flexibility, durability, etc.) that can leach out and harm human health in a number of ways. In many cases (water bottles, food containers, etc.) we can choose to eschew plastics in favor of safer alternatives like glass and stainless steel. But what about in the medical setting? Will we refuse the catheter or the wound dressing because it is plastic? The issue becomes even more challenging in the context of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where the patients are not only more fragile in terms of disease but also more susceptible to chemical insult due to their size and immaturity. 

My latest article for EHP confronts this issue by looking closely at a recent study out of Spain addressing the chemical content and potential endocrine-disrupting activity of common plastic medical products and devices in the NICU setting. What it finds is not reassuring: by caring for infants we may also be harming them. Is the tradeoff worth it if a life is saved? Most certainly. But what if the medical issue is less severe? And are there ways to reduce potentially harmful plastic exposures for all NICU infants without reducing the quality of care? There are no easy answers to this dilemma.