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​New evidence links common chemicals to early onset menopause

Women with daily exposure to certain household chemicals can begin menopause up to nearly four years earlier than the average age of 51, a new study found.

"Biology normally says when it should happen, and there's a role for that," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus said on "CBS This Morning" Thursday. "At the same time, early menopause can accelerate some diseases. So we need to be aware of this."

According to a new study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, women whose bodies have high levels of chemicals found in plastics, personal-care products, common household items and the environment experience menopause two to four years earlier than women with lower levels of these chemicals.

The researchers tested over 100 chemicals and identified 15 of them -- nine PCBs, three pesticides, two phthalates and a furan (a toxic chemical) -- that were significantly associated with earlier ages of menopause and potentially have detrimental effects on ovarian function.

Although many of the chemicals included in the study have been banned from U.S. production because of their negative health effects, they are still being produced globally and can be found pervasively throughout the environment.

"They last for many many years in the environment and over a decade in our blood," Agus said. "Some of them, including a class called phthalates, are being used to soften plastic."

To reduce your risk of chemical exposure, Agus suggests microwaving food in glass instead of plastic and reading labels on cosmetics to avoid the list of dangerous chemicals.

Because early menopause can accelerate some diseases and reduce ovary function, Agus said we need to be extremely aware of our exposure to these chemicals.

A decline in ovarian function not only can adversely affect fertility but also can lead to earlier development of heart disease, osteoporosis and other health problems. Other problems previously linked to the chemicals include certain cancers, metabolic syndrome and, in younger females, early puberty.

"We need transparency in labeling, and we as a society have to find a way to identify these compounds in nature because we are being affected," Agus said.

"It's important to note this study is association, not causality, but it's very important that we also realize this finding could change our lives," he said.