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Environmental Health: Phthalates And Behavioral Problems In Children

A study published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that phthalates – plastic softeners that have weaseled their way into the ingredient lists of everything from hair spray to hand soaps to lotions, cosmetics, shampoos, perfumes, even children’s rubber ducky bath toys – are doing even more irreparable damage to human health than previously thought. The children’s environmental health study (conducted at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York) tracked phthalate levels in mothers through the ends of their pregnancies, then asked those mothers to track their children’s behavior and cognitive functioning up to 9 years of age. Children born to women with higher phthalate levels were more aggressive, showed poorer “conduct,” and had less emotional control.

Not quite sure what phthalates are, or how to avoid them? Phthalates are endocrine disruptors – they mess with the body’s delicate hormonal balance, and cause developmental, genital, and thyroid problems in children. They’re just the sort of nasty little toxic ingredients that the Environmental Working Group likes to track, so the group is a good place to go for more information on how to scour ingredient labels.

It’s long been known that phthalates, introduced in the 1920s, have been linked to hormonal and developmental disruptions in animals. But it wasn’t until 2005 that a study finally looked at the effects of phthalates on human babies. Shanna Swan, a study author, found that boys born to mothers with higher phthalate levels showed “incomplete masculinization,” one sign of which was a shorter anogenital distance. (For an explanation of those terms, listen to Public Radio's Living On Earth interview with Swan).

Yesterday’s new study from Environmental Health Perspectives adds fresh kindling to an already raging fire of evidence that America needs to catch up with Europe when it comes to phasing out phthalates. Read the full study here.

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