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6 September 2011
Common pollutants linked to behavioral problems

Phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals which are widely present in the environment, have recently been linked to increased behavioral problems and researchers say they may also cause changes in the developing brain. Phthalates are widely used in consumer products ranging from plastic toys, to household building materials, to shampoos.

Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health say their findings will likely heighten public concern over phthalates, which have previously been linked to genital malformation in male infants. The new study is the first to examine prenatal phthalate exposure and the prevalence of mental, motor and behavioral problems in preschool children. The paper, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, specifically looks at exposure to phthalates during pregnancy.

Overall, the researchers found that higher prenatal exposures to phthalates significantly increased the odds of motor delay, an indication of potential future problems with fine and gross motor coordination.

Among girls, phthalates were associated with significant decreases in mental development. Prenatal exposures to three of the phthalates were also significantly associated with behavior problems including emotionally reactive behavior, anxiety/depression, somatic complaints and withdrawn behavior.

The actual mechanisms by which phthalates may affect the developing brain are still being explored. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters and they may impact the function of the thyroid gland, the researchers speculate. They also lower production of testosterone, which plays a critical role in the developing brain.

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

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Source: Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

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