Effects in childhood of exposure during pregnancy to endocrine disruptors present in plastic

Two recent ISGlobal studies show that exposure to phthalates (found in many toys) is linked to poorer lung function in children, while a phenol found in sunscreen is linked to higher weight and higher blood pressure in pre-adolescents.

Phthalates, chemical compounds considered endocrine disruptors, are commonly used as plasticizers in toys or food packaging, among others. Photo by S. Tsuchiya in Unsplash

A study of 641 families from the birth cohorts of the INMA Project has shown that exposure to phthalates in the maternal womb is related to worse lung function in infancy.

In this project, carried out at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), the researchers analyzed maternal urine during pregnancy and lung function of their children aged 4 to 11. Exposure to some types of phthalates was found to be associated with a lower ability to exhale at all ages, although the effects decreased with age, suggesting they are reversible.

Phthalates are chemical compounds that are commonly used as plasticizers (in toys or food packaging, for example). They can also be found in sprays and varnishes, in clothes, detergents or cosmetics, among others. Over time, all of these products release phthalates, so they are often found in the air, in dust, or even in food. In addition, these compounds, which are considered endocrine disruptors, have the ability to cross the placenta and reach the uterus. For this reason, its use is restricted to the European Union. The results of this study lead the authors to suggest that the regulations be expanded to include more phthalates and that they be extended to countries where these restrictions do not yet apply.

On the other hand, a second study from the same center has shown an effect on the weight and blood pressure of preadolescents exposed to another endocrine disruptor, in this case from the phenol group. Thus they have shown an association between prenatal exposure to benzophenone-3 (BP3) – a common ingredient in cosmetics and sunscreens – and a higher body mass index and a higher diastolic pressure at 11 years.

Effect of fatty acids on the adolescent brain

Unlike endocrine disruptors, omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids are healthy and benefit brain development and function.

A third ISGlobal study has looked into the effect on attention during adolescence (a period in which the brain is developing to prepare for adulthood) of two acids omega-3 fatty acids:

  • DHA, the most abundant in the brain and which is acquired with the consumption of fatty fish
  • ALA, of plant origen

Fatty acid intake was measured in 332 adolescents from Barcelona through questionnaires on dietary habits and blood sample analysis. The results showed that higher levels of DHA are associated with better reaction time in computer tests (greater attention span and less distraction), while ALA is associated with less impulsivity.

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