How phthalate exposure impacts pregnancy

In recent years, scientists have linked chemicals known as phthalates with complications of pregnancy and fetal development.

Now, a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health sheds light on the mechanism that may be to blame.

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic materials more flexible and can also be found in personal care products such as perfumes, deodorants and lotions. They can enter the human body by being ingested, inhaled or through the skin. Most often phthalates are metabolized and excreted quickly, but constant contact with them means that nearly everyone in the United States is exposed, some more than others.

Kelly Ferguson, a postdoctoral research fellow, and John Meeker, associate professor of environmental health sciences and associate dean for research at the School of Public Health, along with their team, tested urine samples from pregnant women and found an association between the presence of phthalates and increased levels of biomarkers of oxidative stress.

“It is not fully known what the impacts of increased oxidative stress on pregnancy might be, but this is an active area of research,” Meeker said. “We recently showed in another analysis among the same cohort of women that biomarkers of oxidative stress were associated with increased risk of preterm birth. Other effects, such as adverse fetal development and maternal health complications, may also be related to oxidative stress.”

Kelly Ferguson et al. Urinary Phthalate Metabolites and Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress in Pregnant Women: A Repeated Measures Analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2014 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1307996

Exposure During Pregnancy to Common Household Chemicals Associated with Substantial Drop in Child IQ

Children exposed during pregnancy to elevated levels of two common chemicals found in the home—di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP)—had an IQ score, on average, more than six points lower than children exposed at lower levels, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The study is the first to report a link between prenatal exposure to phthalates and IQ in school-age children. Results appear online in the journal PLOS ONE.

DnBP and DiBP are found in a wide variety of consumer products, from dryer sheets to vinyl fabrics to personal care products like lipstick, hairspray, and nail polish, even some soaps. Since 2009, several phthalates have been banned from children’s toys and other childcare articles in the United States. However, no steps have been taken to protect the developing fetus by alerting pregnant women to potential exposures. In the U.S., phthalates are rarely listed as ingredients on products in which they are used.

Researchers followed 328 New York City women and their children from low-income communities. They assessed the women’s exposure to four phthalates—DnBP, DiBP, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, and diethyl phthalate—in the third trimester of pregnancy by measuring levels of the chemicals’ metabolites in urine. Children were given IQ tests at age 7.

Children of mothers exposed during pregnancy to the highest 25 percent of concentrations of DnBP and DiBP had IQs 6.6 and 7.6 points lower, respectively, than children of mothers exposed to the lowest 25 percent of concentrations after controlling for factors like maternal IQ, maternal education, and quality of the home environment that are known to influence child IQ scores. The association was also seen for specific aspects of IQ, such as perceptual reasoning, working memory, and processing speed. The researchers found no associations between the other two phthalates and child IQ.

The range of phthalate metabolite exposures measured in the mothers was not unusual: it was within what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observed in a national sample.  

“Pregnant women across the United States are exposed to phthalates almost daily, many at levels similar to those that we found were associated with substantial reductions in the IQ of children,” says lead author Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School.

“The magnitude of these IQ differences is troubling,” says senior author Robin Whyatt, DrPH, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and deputy director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School. “A six- or seven-point decline in IQ may have substantial consequences for academic achievement and occupational potential.”

“While there has been some regulation to ban phthalates from toys of young children,” adds Dr. Factor-Litvak, “there is no legislation governing exposure during pregnancy, which is likely the most sensitive period for brain development. Indeed, phthalates are not required to be on product labeling.”

While avoiding all phthalates in the United States is for now impossible, the researchers recommend that pregnant women take steps to limit exposure by not microwaving food in plastics, avoiding scented products as much as possible, including air fresheners, and dryer sheets, and not using recyclable plastics labeled as 3, 6, or 7. 

The findings build on earlier, similar observations by the researchers of associations between prenatal exposure to DnBP and DiBP and children’s cognitive and motor development and behavior at age 3. This September, they reported a link between prenatal exposure to phthalates and risk for childhood asthma.

It’s not known how phthalates affect child health. However, numerous studies show that they disrupt the actions of hormones, including testosterone and thyroid hormone. Inflammation and oxidative stress may also play a role.

Textiles are broken down through laundering  and impact our environment - in themselves (especially polyester fleeces), chemical that are used in processing them, used to treat them.

A surprising way laundry adds flame retardants to surface waters

n recent years, evidence has been building suggesting that flame retardants, which are used in furniture and electronics, are potentially linked to health problems. And studies have shown that the substances leach out of products, and end up in indoor dust, air and in us. Now, scientists report in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology how flame retardants in our homes could also be contaminating surface water through our laundry.                                

Previous studies have measured elevated levels of flame retardants in wastewater going into and coming out of treatment plants. Researchers have guessed that some of the compounds are getting transferred from indoors to the outdoor environment when retardant-containing clothes are laundered, and the wastewater makes its way to rivers and lakes. Miriam L. Diamond and colleagues wanted to test that theory.

In a pilot study, the researchers found that cotton and polyester fabrics accumulate flame retardants and plasticizers called phthalates from the air in an indoor office environment. When the fabrics were laundered, a range of these substances flowed into the wash water, which ultimately gets treated and released into the environment. The results could have implications for both aquatic life and people, the researchers say.     

Amandeep Saini et al. From Clothing to Laundry Water: Investigating the Fate of Phthalates, Brominated Flame Retardants, and Organophosphate Esters, Environmental Science & Technology (2016). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b02038 

A variety of flame retardants and phthalates wash into laundry water (green) while others remain on cotton or polyester fabrics (black). Credit: American Chemical Society                                                           

Prenatal exposure to common chemical, phthalates, found in some plastics disrupts masculinization of male genitals

Early exposure in the human womb to phthalates, which are common environmental chemicals, disrupts the masculinization of male genitals, according to a new study that will be presented Sunday at the Endocrine Society’s 97th annual meeting in San Diego.

Phthalates are hormone-altering chemicals, called endocrine disruptors, and are found in many plastics, containerized foods and personal care products.

The clinical study not only confirms similar results of animal studies, it also provides new information about how phthalates target a main pregnancy hormone, said the principal investigator, Jennifer Adibi, MPH, ScD, assistant professor, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. This hormone, known as human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), is made during pregnancy by the placenta and can be measured in the mother’s blood and urine.

Products to watch out for...

Phthalates (DEHP, DBP, DEP, etc.)

  • Help perfume linger
  • Make nail polish last longer


  • DEP has been linked to damaged sperm and reproductive toxicity
  • Cause concern to liver & endocrine function 
  • Body stores large amounts of it
  • Carcinogen
  • *DEHP & DBP banned in EU, all phthalates banned in children’s toys
  • *All products except fragrance must state if they contain phthalate 


  • Mascara (where it’s used as a preservative)


  • Known neurotoxin
  • *Must be listed on label. May also be listed as ‘thimerisol’
  • *Parabens, formaldehyde, quaternium 15 or diazodylin urea may be used in leu- they are also toxic, but not as bad. 
  • *check out Afterglow Cosmetics Pure Soul Mascara, which is natural and made with organic botanical extracts, free of harsh preservatives. Does not clump, flake or smudge. 


  • Injects caffeine, enzymes, anti-inflammatories, phosphatydalcholine, deoxycholate. It can generate ulcers, skin infections and tissue damage. 


  • Nail Polish (preservation) 


  • Overexposure can cause rashes, skin irritation and even breathing problems. 
  • Probable human carcinogen
  • *products must state if they contain formaldehyde

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Phthatale family or di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP) and di(2-ehtylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)

Can result in: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCS) and carcinogen linked to birth defects; premature breast developments; lowered sperm counts; testicular injury; damage to reproductive organs; lung, liver and kidney cancer

Why used: makes plastic soft and malleable.

Found in: nail polish, hair-straighteners and sprays, body lotions, and deodorants.

Banned in: Europe


Industrial Chemicals in Cosmetics: The Truth is Out

The average woman uses a dozen personal care products containing 168 chemical ingredients everyday. Men use about six products a day containing 85 chemicals.

- Stacy Malkan, 2007 from Not Just a Pretty Face 

Cosmetics and personal care products are loaded with industrial chemicals.  Over the past decade this issue has been thoroughly documented by environmental groups, alternative media outlets, scientists, government studies, and even mainstream beauty magazines.

The David Suzuki Foundation has forwarded the campaign “What’s Inside? That Counts” to highlight the Dirty Dozen worst chemicals that are known to cause health and environmental problems.  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a coalition of non-profit environmental groups working to raise awareness about the impact of chemicals in cosmetics. This group has organized around Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cosmetics”, a video that succinctly demonstrates the connections between industry practices, consumer society, and toxins in cosmetics.

The Environmental Working Group has established the Skin Deep Database which enables users to search most body care products and find out their impact on  human and ecological health.  Stacy Malkan has pretty much dedicated her life to the issue. Author of the book Not Just A Pretty Face and founder of the blog by the same name, she has effectively written the book on chemicals in cosmetics.  Alternet has run numerous articles on issues like which cosmetic chemicals to avoid, why natural products may be bad for you, chemical legislation in the US, and lead in lipstick. Gill Deacon, recent book There’s Lead in Your Lipstick: Toxins in Everyday Body Care Products and How to Avoid Them is a similar guide as Malkan’s book but focuses more on the DIY practices that can be done at home. She claims to help  “save you money, save the planet” and set you “on the road to eco-enlightenment”.

Googling “toxic cosmetics” yields over 6,700,000 hits.  Clearly this is an issue that is on a lot of people’s minds. So what is the problem with body care products?

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