TIME Research

Plastic Chemicals During Pregnancy Linked to 70% Increased Asthma Risk

Silhouette of Pregnancy
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You won’t easily find the word “phthalate” on a label, but the group of sticky chemicals that help make plastic flexible (and help make fragrances “stick” to your hair, face, or skin) may have unintended health consequences, finds a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

A research team from Columbia University followed a group of 300 moms and children in New York’s inner city for several years. Researchers compared the urine tests of the mothers’ during pregnancy—testing for concentrations of phthalates—to whether their children had asthma at ages 5-11.

“Virtually everyone in the U.S. is exposed to phthalates,” says study author Robin Whyatt, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. So in the absence of a true control, the researchers had to compare women with the lowest levels of exposure to women with the highest.

Children of women with higher levels of two types of phthalates—butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP) and di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)—in their urine while pregnant had a 72% and 78% increase in the risk of asthma. And every single woman in the cohort had metabolites of both kinds of phthalates in their urine.

MORE: What Is A Phthalate?

Phthalates are everywhere, from school supplies and nail polish to designer denim. They lurk in plastic and home materials, and since they hold scent, they’re extremely popular in all kinds of personal care products. In the study, researchers found a strong association between phthalate concentration and perfume, as well as vinyl flooring. “They’re volatile, so they get into the air,” Whyatt says. “Our data indicates that inhalation is a significant route of exposure.” Fetuses seems to be especially at risk; since their lungs develop so rapidly, they’re more susceptible to environmental exposures, she says. And phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mess with the body’s natural hormone system, which Whyatt says are key to fetal development.

Studies have linked phthalates to early-onset eczema, hormonal imbalances and respiratory problems.

Eliminating your exposure altogether is impossible, and limiting it is difficult, Whyatt says. But she and her fellow researchers have adopted some phthalate-reducing recommendations, like storing food in glass containers instead of plastic, never microwaving food in plastic, avoiding air fresheners and all scented products (look for ‘fragrance” or “parfum” on the label), buying scent-free laundry detergent and dishwashing soap, and avoiding use of plastic with recycling codes #3 and #7 (you can tell by the number in the triangle).

“We feel we have a real burden, particularly to the women in our cohort,” Whyatt says, some of whom she’s been following for 16 years. But you can only cut down exposure so much. “Because they’re so widespread and in so many different products, addressing this is up to the regulators.”

Illustration by Heather Jones for TIME
TIME Environmental Health

Potent New Weed-Killer Could Be Sprayed Near Schools, Says Environmental Group

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering approval of a new herbicide that could pose health risks to school children, says the Environmental Working Group

The EPA is open to public comments until June 30 about approving Enlist Duo, a new combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular RoundUp weed killer. A majority of soybean and corn crops are now resistant to glyphosate alone, which is why Dow AgroSciences created the new formulation, designed to work on genetically modified seeds the company has developed that are supposed to be more resistant to weed growth.

But in a new analysis, EWG says more than 5,000 schools are located within 200 feet of fields that could potentially be sprayed with the chemical, if it’s approved. According to the environmental advocacy group, the compounds in Enlist Duo have been linked to harmful health effects, including immune and reproductive issues as well as certain cancers and Parkinson’s disease. EWG says the EPA analysis of the herbicide doesn’t sufficiently consider the potential health harms, especially if inhaled, which would be the primary way people would be exposed to it. The agency, for its part, says it “confirmed the safety of the use for the public, agricultural workers and non-target species.”

In its analysis, EWG found that Michigan contains the highest number of schools—658—located within 200 feet of corn and soybean crops that could be sprayed with Enlist Duo, followed by Missouri, South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. For an interactive map of schools within 1000 feet of such fields, click here.

TIME Environmental Health

Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

A new report finds the number of chemicals contributing to brain disorders in children has doubled since 2006

In recent years, the prevalence of developmental disorders such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia have soared. While greater awareness and more sophisticated diagnoses are partly responsible for the rise, researchers say the changing environment in which youngsters grow up may also be playing a role.

In 2006, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai identified five industrial chemicals responsible for causing harm to the brain — lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (found in electric transformers, motors and capacitors), arsenic (found in soil and water as well as in wood preservatives and pesticides) and toluene (used in processing gasoline as well as in paint thinner, fingernail polish and leather tanning). Exposure to these neurotoxins was associated with changes in neuron development in the fetus as well as among infants, and with lower school performance, delinquent behavior, neurological abnormalities and reduced IQ in school-age children.

(MORE: A Link Between Pesticides and Attention Disorders?)

Now the same researchers have reviewed the literature and found six additional industrial chemicals that can hamper normal brain development. These are manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Manganese, they say, is found in drinking water and can contribute to lower math scores and heightened hyperactivity, while exposure to high levels of fluoride from drinking water can contribute to a seven-point drop in IQ on average. The remaining chemicals, which are found in solvents and pesticides, have been linked to deficits in social development and increased aggressive behaviors.

The research team acknowledges that there isn’t a causal connection between exposure to any single chemical and behavioral or neurological problems — it’s too challenging to isolate the effects of each chemical to come to such conclusions. But they say the growing body of research that is finding links between higher levels of these chemicals in expectant mothers’ blood and urine and brain disorders in their children should raise alarms about how damaging these chemicals can be. The developing brain in particular, they say, is vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals, and in many cases, the changes they trigger are permanent.

“The consequence of such brain damage is impaired [central nervous system] function that lasts a lifetime and might result in reduced intelligence, as expressed in terms of lost IQ points, or disruption in behavior,” they write in their report, which was published in the journal Lancet Neurology.

They point to two barriers to protecting children from such exposures — not enough testing of industrial chemicals and their potential effect on brain development before they are put into widespread use, and the enormous amount of proof that regulatory agencies require in order to put restrictions or limitations on chemicals. Most control of such substances, they note, occurs after negative effects are found among adults; in children, the damage may be more subtle, in the form of lower IQ scores or hyperactivity, that might not be considered pathological or dangerous. “Our very great concern is that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies, perhaps most seriously in developing countries,” they write. “A new framework of action is needed.”

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