The long-term effects of prenatal exposures

Two recent ISGlobal studies show how exposure to plasticiser compounds and endocrine disruptors during pregnancy is linked to neurodevelopmental problems and obesity.

Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy can have long-term effects on children. Photo by Mustafa Omar on Unsplash

A couple of recent studies conducted by ISGlobal suggest that exposure to chemicals early in life may have long-term health implications, such as lower IQ, obesity or cardiovascular disease.

Phthalates, brain development and IQ

The latest study, led by Mònica Guxens, focuses on exposure to plasticisers before birth, and has shown that it is linked to:

  • a lower total volume of grey matter (the one that helps us process information) in childhood, which in turn could be linked to a lower IQ.
  • a lower volume of white matter (that which communicates the grey matter with the rest of the body) in girls.

Previous studies had already shown a possible effect at age 6; this study confirms it, and shows that at age 14 it still persists.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are ubiquitously used as plasticisers and solvents in a wide range of commercial products, such as personal care products, cosmetics, food packaging, etc.

Although the individual effects are small, “the results suggest that widespread exposure to phthalates and lack of regulation may have a significant impact on public health,” says Mònica Guxens.

Endocrine disruptors and obesity

Another recent paper had examined the relationship between prenatal exposure to endocrine disruptors (EDCs) and child growth.

The research team, led in this case by Martine Vrijheid, has shown that this prenatal exposure is associated with an accelerated increase in the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children from birth to nine years of age. In addition, “accelerated growth during childhood has been linked to a number of health problems later in life, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says Vrijheid.

The study focused on assessing exposure to a wide range of endocrine disruptors found in the diet and in everyday products, such as plastics, personal hygiene products and pesticides. This included persistent organic pollutants, perfluoroalkyl substances, polychlorinated biphenyls, phthalates and phenols, among others. The study also looked at how the combination of different endocrine disruptors had an accelerated effect.

Both studies highlight the importance of conducting further research to assess the health implications of prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals throughout life, with the aim of informing policies and measures to reduce the risks associated with exposure to these substances during pregnancy.

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