Study: Phthalates Affect Child Development

  • The federal government has banned certain types of phthalates in children's products, but the chemicals are still in many other products including cars, flooring, shower curtains, cosmetics, shampoos and lotions. (Source: Toniht at Wikimedia Commons)

Phthalates are a class of chemicals that have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. They’re used in all kinds of consumer products including flooring, cars and cosmetics.

A new study published today finds a significant link between pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates and negative impacts on their children’s development.

Robin Whyatt is a professor in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and she’s the lead author of the study. She and her team have an ongoing study of more than 700 mothers and their children that began in 1998.

For this particular study, they looked at about half of those mother-child pairs. They measured phthalate levels in the mothers’ urine and compared those levels to several developmental tests on their children, who are now three years old.

“As levels in the mothers’ urine went up, the child’s motor development went down significantly.”

She says the types of phthalates they studied appear to affect the babies’ brain development while they’re still in utero.

“Three of the phthalates were significantly associated with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”

Whyatt says they controlled for a long list of factors. They looked at tobacco smoke, lead, pesticides, and other toxic substances.

“We controlled for race and ethnicity, gestational age. We looked at marital status, we looked at a number of different indicators of poverty and also how much hardship a woman was going through.”

And she says still, there was a significant link between the mothers’ phthalate levels and their children’s development.

“Our findings are concerning because saw a two to three fold increase in the odds that the child would have motor delays and or behavioral problems.”

But she says more research is needed. And parents should keep in mind that any individual child’s risk is low.

But Robin Whyatt says phthalates are everywhere.

You can find them in cosmetics and hair products and fragrances, because they help retain scent. You might absorb some kinds of phthalates through your skin, or in your food, or just by breathing.

But Whyatt says there’s limited evidence to know exactly how you’re getting exposed, or what to do to lower your exposure. The federal government has banned certain phthalates in children’s products. Robin Whyatt says you can read labels and cut down on products containing phthalates, but there haven’t been any studies to know how much that helps.

For now, she says the best thing you can do for your child’s development is to spend time with them.

“Reading to your child, interacting with your child, that has more effect than any of these environmental toxicants we’re talking about.”

The study appears in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.


(music bump)

New research from the University of Michigan reinforces why it’s important to keep kids from being exposed to lead. Steve Carmody reports:

It’s long been known that relatively high blood lead levels can negatively affect children’s IQ.

New research finds it can also affect a child’s motor skills.

Dr. Howard Hu, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, studied children between the ages of three and seven in Chennai, India. Half the children studied had relatively high levels of lead in their blood. Those children tested significantly lower on motor skill tests… like using peg boards and copying pictures… than children with far less exposure to lead.

Dr. Hu says the Indian children’s blood lead levels are about two to three times that of American children. Lead is still a problem in Michigan….with children still being exposed to aging lead paint in homes…lead in pipes…and lead contamination in soil.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.