Phthalates May Harm Newborn Girls' Mental Development

In the first study of its kind, researchers at Mount Sinai Children’s Medical Health Center have found that newborn girls whose mothers have high levels of phthalates from plastics show markedly lower levels of attention and alertness than newborn boys of similar mothers. Phthalates of different types are used in consumer products ranging from fragrances to vinyl flooring. The varieties associated with neurological effects in this study are commonly used to make plastics more pliable and often appear in medical tubing, food containers, wall coverings and flooring. Among the most widespread of these phthalates is di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), which was permanently banned by Congress from use in children’s toys and child care products in August 2008, along with two other types. All toys containing those phthalates were to be removed from store shelves by February 10, 2009.

Shortly after birth, neurological tests were performed on 311 infants. Their scores were correlated with phthalate measurements in urine from 295 mothers, most of whom were black or Latina and under 25 years old, according to the study, in-press in NeuroToxicology and available online. Far from abnormally high, the mothers' phthalate levels were within the range reported for the U.S. population. In fact, according to the CDC, more than 75 percent of Americans have residues of at least five phthalates in their bodies. As the researchers noted, the tests on infants attempted to measure their attention to visual and auditory stimuli, motor performance and overall alertness, among other behaviors.

After eliminating other factors—including mothers' smoking, alcohol use, delivery anesthesia, illicit drug use and organophosphate pesticide exposure—researchers found a reverse correlation between girls' levels of alertness and levels of metabolized DEHP and similar phthalates in their mothers’ urine. Newborn boys whose mothers had high levels of phthalates found in fragrances rather than plastics actually showed some increase in motor performance, which jibes with the sex-specific effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. The researchers cautioned that they did not see a linear relationship in boys between performance and phthalate level; they further noted that “the long-term implications of our findings our unclear.” There is, however, evidence linking newborn behavior to childhood behavioral problems and developmental disabilities.

Significantly, this is one of the first studies to look at the effects of phthalates on infant girls. These chemicals have already been associated with altered male genital development, damage to DNA in sperm and decreased sperm quality. One cause of the altered behavior may be phthalate-related low thyroid levels in the mother; the effects of phthalates on thyroid levels have been documented. Because the mother supplies all of the fetus's thyroid hormones during the first half of pregnancy, when brain development is in its initial phases, low thyroid levels at this point can be very harmful.

What you can do

Avoid buying plastics that may be treated with phthalates, including vinyl toys, shower curtains and gloves. Look for “PVC,” “V” or the“3” recycling code on the item or its packaging.

If you have vinyl flooring in your home, damp mop regularly since phthalates bind to dust on the floor. Direct sunlight on vinyl tiles causes them to release phthalates more quickly, so put lower blinds on windows that shine directly on flooring. Finally, if you’re already considering replacing your flooring, choose nonvinyl options such as cork, linoleum, wood or stone.

Toys with the worst phthalates should already be off store shelves, but check to see if toys you already own have them.

Look for products that don’t include fragrance in their ingredients.

When buying cosmetics, purchase from companies that have pledged not to use phthalates.


Photo credit: Etolane / license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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