Study: Phthalates affect child development

Sep 6, 2011

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with behavioral disorders, or behavioral problems: anxious, depressed behaviors, emotionally reactive behaviors, withdrawn behavior.”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.