Study Shows Mounting Evidence of Plasticizer Chemicals’ Harm to the Fetus

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Friday, February 19, 2021

WASHINGTON – Prenatal exposure to the widely used plasticizer chemicals called phthalates can lead to learning, attention and behavioral disorders in children, according to a peer-reviewed study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

Phthalates have long been known to harm the developing male reproductive system. The new study, by scientists and health experts at Project TENDR, examines evidence showing that prenatal exposure to phthalates can cause harm to the development of children’s brains.

Phthalates are chemicals used as plasticizers for a wide range of consumer and industrial uses, including in cosmetics, personal care products like sanitary pads and diapers, building materials, food packaging, and even food.

EWG has worked to get several of these chemicals banned, but they are still widely used and can be found in the bodies of almost everyone. They easily cross the placenta, and women have higher exposure to phthalates than men through personal care products. The risk of exposure to these chemical compounds is even greater for Black and Latina women than for white women.

The study reviewed data from the past decade measuring prenatal exposure to phthalates or environmental estimates of exposures from 11 countries or territories. It found consistent associations between phthalates and behaviors typically linked to ADHD and impaired cognitive development, including lower IQ, reduced psychomotor development and impaired social communication.

“This study further underscores the need for both the chemical industry and the federal government to take the necessary steps to remove these toxic chemicals from any products that can ultimately put children at risk of exposure,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG vice president of science investigations. “Chemicals that could contribute to life-long neurological and behavioral damage in people should not be used to manufacture personal care products, food packaging or other items consumers, including children, come in contact with every day.”

Project TENDR, or Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks, is a group of 50 health experts, advocates and scientists. TENDR is calling for manufacturers and retailers to eliminate the use of all phthalates and for federal and state regulations to ban or restrict their use. The group’s mission is to protect children and pregnant women from chemicals and pollutants that can harm brain development, with an emphasis on eliminating disparate exposures caused by economic and racial inequalities.

The group recommends using a class approach to evaluate the risks of phthalate exposure, an approach EWG has also endorsed.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.