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Originally published September 8 2011

Prenatal exposure to common chemicals called phthalates linked to brain damage

by S. L. Baker, features writer

(NaturalNews) According to the American Chemistry Council, a family of plasticizer compounds called phthlates are fine and dandy additions to everything from wall coverings, flooring, toys, perfumes, shampoos and IV tubes.

In fact, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies show average phthalates exposures are below levels set by U.S. federal agencies to be protective of human health. So that means they must be safe and nothing to worry about, but this is not true.

Although the federal government and the chemical industry lobbyists may want you to believe phthalates are innocuous, scientists have found that these widepread chemical contaminants are potent endocrine system disrupters. And now a newly published study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health links phthalate exposure while still in the womb to changes in the brain and increased behavioral problems in children by the age three.

Previous studies of school-age children have already pointed to a strong association between prenatal exposure to phthalates and developmental problems. However, the new study, just published in Environmental Health Perspectives , is the first to investigate phthalate exposure before birth and the prevalence of mental, motor and behavioral problems in children during their preschool years.

The children of 319 non-smoking inner city women who gave birth between 1999 and 2006 were followed for several years by the research team, headed by Robin M. Whyatt, DrPH, deputy director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health.

The scientists documented prenatal exposure by measuring metabolites of four phthalates in the mothers urine. Then the researchers evaluated links between pre-birth exposures to these phthalates and the mental, motor and behavioral development of toddlers when they were 3 years old.

The scientists used a well-known developmental test, the Bayley Scales of Infant Development II, to document the mental and motor development of the children. In addition, behavioral problems were assessed by asking the moms who participated in the research to complete the widely used Child Behavior Checklist (used for kids between one and a half and 5 years of age). The results showed that higher prenatal exposures to two of the phthalates significantly increased the odds of motor delay, an indication of potential future problems with fine and gross motor coordination.

But the news gets even more troublesome. One of the phthalates appeared to cause significant decreases in mental development in girls. Prenatal exposures to three of the phthalates were also significantly associated with behavior problems including anxiety and depression and withdrawn behavior in both little boys and girls.

"Our results suggest that prenatal exposure to these phthalates adversely affects child mental, motor and behavioral development during the preschool years," Dr. Whyatt said in a statement to the media. "The results add to a growing public health concern about the widespread use of phthalates in consumer products."

So how could phthalates affect the developing brain? No one knows for sure yet. But Dr. Whyatt, who is also professor of clinical Environmental Health Sciences, pointed out that phthalates disrupt the body's hormone systems, including the function of the thyroid gland. They also lower production of testosterone, which is needed for the brain to develop normally.

"The results are concerning since increasing exposures from the lowest 25 percent to the highest 25 percent among the women in our study was associated with a doubling or tripling in the odds of motor and/or behavioral problems in the children," Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD, the senior epidemiologist on the study, explained in the press statement.

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