Mount Sinai-Led Study Finds Prenatal Exposure to Certain Manmade Chemicals Negatively Affects Childhood Neurodevelopment

A recent collaborative study links higher prenatal exposure to phthalates — manmade chemicals that interfere with hormonal messaging — to behavioral problems in children.

 – January 26, 2010 /Press Release/  –– 

A new study led by Mount Sinai researchers in collaboration with scientists from Cornell University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has found higher prenatal exposure to phthalates—manmade chemicals that interfere with hormonal messaging—to be connected with disruptive and problem behaviors in children between the ages of 4 and 9 years. The study, which is the first to examine the effects of prenatal phthalate exposure on child neurobehavioral development, will be published January 28, on the Environmental Health Perspectives website.

"There is increasing evidence that phthalate exposure is harmful to children at all stages of development," said Stephanie Engel, PhD, lead study author and Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "We found a striking pattern of associations between low molecular weight phthalates – which are commonly found in personal care products – and disruptive childhood behaviors, such as aggressiveness and other conduct issues, and problems with attention. These same behavioral problems are commonly found in children diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Conduct Disorder."

Phthalates are part of a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, that interfere with the body's endocrine, or hormone system. They are a family of compounds found in a wide range of consumer products such as nail polishes, to increase their durability and reduce chips, and in cosmetics, perfumes, lotions and shampoos, to carry fragrance. Other phthalates are used to increase the flexibility and durability of plastics such as PVC, or included as coatings on medications or nutritional supplements to make them timed-release. 

"Recently, the government instituted regulations limiting certain phthalates in things like child care articles or toys that a young child might put in their mouth," continued Dr. Engel. "But it’s their mother’s contact with phthalate-containing products that causes prenatal exposure. The phthalates that we found most strongly related to neurodevelopment were those commonly found in cosmetics, perfumes, lotions and shampoos. Current US regulations do not address these kinds of phthalates."

For the study, phthalate metabolite levels were analyzed in prenatal urine samples of a multiethnic group of 404 women who were pregnant for the first time. The women were invited to participate in follow-up interviews when their children were between the ages of 4 and 9. The mothers were not informed of their phthalate metabolite levels and the researchers were unaware of their exposures when testing the children.

About The Mount Sinai Medical Center

The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses both The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Established in 1968, Mount Sinai School of Medicine is one of few medical schools embedded in a hospital in the United States. It has more than 3,400 faculty in 32 departments and 15 institutes, and ranks among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institute of Health funding and by U.S. News & World Report. The school received the 2009 Spencer Foreman Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is a 1,171-bed tertiary- and quaternary-care teaching facility and one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. In 2009, U.S. News & World Report ranked The Mount Sinai Hospital among the nation’s top 20 hospitals based on reputation, patient safety, and other patient-care factors. Nearly 60,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients last year, and approximately 530,000 outpatient visits took place.

For more information, visit www.mountsinai.org.