RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Pregnant mothers with high exposure levels to makeup and plastic-softening chemicals called phthalates are more likely to report disruptive and problem behaviors in their children four to nine years after the child's birth, according to a first-of-its kind study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. As with a recent study linking the chemical bisphenol-A to aggression in children, this study raises concerns about the effects of exposure to common chemicals during pregnancy. "It's important to remember that childhood exposure begins before the child is born, so it's the mother's contact with consumer products that matters during pregnancy," explains study author Stephanie Engel, MPH, PhD, associate professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
THE DETAILS: To figure out phthalate exposure, Mount Sinai researchers tested the urine of 188 expectant mothers during their third trimester of pregnancy for the presence of 10 specific phthalate metabolites. Then, mothers were interviewed one to three times while their children were 4 to 9 years old, answering standard questionnaires to assess their children's behavior and cognitive functioning. The researchers found that prenatal exposure to a group of phthalates commonly found in personal-care products like makeup, hairspray, perfume, body sprays, scented shampoos, soaps, and lotions was significantly associated with poorer scores for problems with aggression, conduct, and emotional control. Associations did not appear to differ between boys and girls overall, and the associations were stronger as with higher levels of exposure.
WHAT IT MEANS: This study is the first to compare the behavior of children in this age group based on their phthalate exposure before birth. "Pregnancy is a uniquely vulnerable stage in development. Even in the absence of consensus, there is sufficient evidence today to support the plausibility of harm from phthalate exposure, particularly in the context of fetal development," says Engel. "The prudent course is to avoid exposure as much as possible, and to press for regulatory action requiring consumer product labeling." Previous research has also tied phthalates in hairspray to hypospadias, a genital birth defect that involves the urethra opening on the underside of the penis. Last year, a study published in the International Journal of Andrology found boys exposed to higher levels prenatally were not as interested in masculine behaviors and male toys when compared with boys whose mothers had fewer phthalates in their bodies. Even if you're not pregnant, it's important to avoid these chemicals. Phthalates have been linked to hormone disruption because they act like artificial estrogen in the body, and also are associated with an increased risk of allergies and asthma.
You likely won't find phthalates listed on product labels, but the truth is, they hide inside the majority of personal-care products, and in many other items found around the house, including air fresheners, scented candles, laundry products, vinyl flooring, vinyl shower curtains, and many soft plastic toys. Some pharmaceutical drugs and supplements also contain phthalates.
Going completely phthalate-free may be an impossible goal, but you can reduce your exposure by following these tactics.