Infant brain drain: Chemicals in plastics under scrutiny.

Nov 03, 2011

Yolton, K, Y Xu, D Strauss, M Altaye, A Calafat and J Khoury.  2011.  Prenatal exposure to bisphenol A and phthalates and infant neurobehavior. Neurotoxicology and Teratology

Synopsis by Joe Braun

In utero exposure to chemicals in plastics is associated with variations in infant behavior and reflex.

In utero exposure to some chemicals found in plastics might impact infant behavior and reflexes after birth, report researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and Medical Center.

Gestational exposure to some types of phthalates found in plastics could affect how the infant brain develops, the researchers suggest. The study, published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology, reports these chemicals may lead to varied behavioral effects. 

These results are consistent with prior studies documenting altered brain development among infants and children with higher exposure to phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) during gestation.

Phthalates are a class of compounds used in many consumer products, including plastics. Some phthalates soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics used for medical devices, flooring and shower curtains. Others are used in pesticides, dyes, cosmetics and personal care products. BPA is used to produce polycarbonate plastics, resins for food can linings, thermal paper receipts and food packaging.

How people are exposed to phthalates depends on the particular phthalate.  For instance, exposure to di-butyl phthalate (DBP) may occur mainly from skin contact since it is used in cosmetics and beauty care products.  Exposure to d-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) mostly occurs through the diet since food may come into contact with DEHP products during preparation or storage. Some types of phthalates have been linked to reproductive effects and are banned from use in toys, cosmetics and other uses in the United States and Europe. Even so, exposure to phthalates is almost universal.

The researchers followed 350 pregnant women from their second trimester of pregnancy until their infants were 5 weeks old. They measured the concentration of bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates twice during pregnancy – at 16 weeks and at 26 weeks. When the infants were 5 weeks old, the researchers measured the infants' behavior, stress levels and reflexes. They assessed primitive reflexes, active and passive muscle tone, movement quality, alertness and orientation to stimuli as well as signs of stress in response to the exam.

They found that higher concentrations of the phthalate di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) in the mother's urine at 26 weeks were associated with less optimal reflexes in boys.

In contrast, there was some evidence that exposure to DBP was associated with improved movement quality and self-control. No associations were found between BPA and the infants' behavior.

The long-term consequences of this type of altered infant behavior are still uncertain. Future studies will need to confirm these findings and determine if phthalate exposure affects behavior in later childhood.


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