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Phthalates and Neurodevelopment

Mom’s exposure to phthalates during pregnancy affects child’s neurodevelopment

A new study found that prenatal exposure to phthalates—manmade chemicals found in many personal care products and plastic consumer goods—are connected to disruptive behaviors in children between the ages of 4 and 9 years. The study was led by researchers at Mount Sinai in collaboration with scientists from Cornell University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The researchers found a striking link between phthalates and disruptive childhood behaviors, such as aggressiveness, conduct disorders, and problems with attention. These behavioral problems are commonly seen in children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Conduct Disorder.

Mounting evidence suggests that phthalate exposure is harmful to children at all stages of development, but especially during the prenatal period. The results of a study published in a recent issue of Journal of Pediatrics suggest that phthalate exposure during pregnancy contributes to low birth weight in infants.

Phthalates are part of a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the body’s endocrine, or hormone system. The family of compounds is found in a wide range of consumer products such as nail polishes (to increase their durability and reduce chipping), and cosmetics, perfumes, lotions and shampoos, in which they’re used to carry fragrance. Other phthalates are used to increase the flexibility and durability of plastics, including those used to make toys and other items intended for use by children.

Recently, the government implemented regulations limiting certain phthalates in toys and other items that children might put in their mouths. But it’s a woman’s contact with phthalate-containing products that is the source of prenatal exposure. The phthalates that were found to be most strongly related to neurodevelopment were those commonly found in cosmetics, perfumes, lotions and shampoos. Current US regulations do not address these kinds of phthalates.

For the study, phthalate metabolite levels were analyzed in prenatal urine samples of more than 400 women who were pregnant for the first time. The women were invited to participate in follow-up interviews when their children were between the ages of 4 and 9. The mothers were not informed of their phthalate metabolite levels and the researchers were unaware of their exposures when testing the children.

Follow-up visits were completed by 188 of the women and their children. At each follow-up visit, the mothers completed questionnaires designed to assess their children’s behavior. The researchers found that mothers with higher concentrations of certain phthalates during pregnancy consistently reported poorer behavioral profiles in their children. The strongest trends were in the categories of conduct problems, characteristics typically associated with ADHD, Conduct Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Although exposure to phthalates is a concern at every stage of life, scientific evidence suggests that women need to be especially careful to limit their exposure during pregnancy.


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