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Personal care products play role in behavioral disorders?

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There's been a rise in reports of behavioral disorders in kids over the past decade or so. Some researchers say genetics, lack of sleep, and chaotic households all contribute to things like ADHD. Now researchers say another cause could be personal care products. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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Transcript: Julie Grant, March 29, 2010

There’s been a rise in reports of behavioral disorders in kids over the past decade or so. Some researchers say genetics, lack of sleep, and chaotic households all contribute to things like ADHD. Now researchers say another cause could be personal care products. Julie Grant reports.

Researcher Stephanie Engel at Mount Sinai College of Medicine says we’re all exposed to a group of chemicals called phthalates all the time. Heavier ones are used in plastics. Lower weight phthalates are used in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes, to make them work better and last longer.

Some studies have looked at the relationships between phthalates and problems in reproduction. But Engel says phthalates are can be toxic to the nervous system. So she and her colleagues wanted to see if exposure to phthalates in the womb affected children’s brain development.

ENGEL: WE ENROLLED A GROUP OF WOMEN WHO WERE PREGNANT AND RECEIVING PRENATAL CARE AT MT. SINAI. AND WHEN THEY WERE PREGNANT, WE COLLECTED A URINE SAMPLE FROM THEM. AND WE CONTINUED TO FOLLOW THE WOMEN AND THEIR CHILDREN FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS.

Engel says researchers tested the urine of the pregnant women in the study.

That’s because when we rub on lotion or use shampoo, phthalates are absorbed into our bodies, processed and eliminated.

She says the women who had higher levels of the pthalates during pregnancy reported more behavioral problems as their children got older:

ENGEL: THEIR PARENTS, THEIR MOTHERS, REPORTED THEIR BEHAVIOR AS MORE DISRUPTIVE AND MORE PROBLEMATIC. SO THEY TENDED TO BE MORE AGGRESSIVE, HAVE MORE ATTENTION PROBLEMS, HAVE MORE CONDUCT PROBLEMS AND ALSO EXHIBIT MORE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION.

Engel says the problems looked like the types of problems found in children with ADHD: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

She says no behavior effects were found for the phthalates used in vinyl toys and other soft plastics. But the higher the mother’s exposure to phthalates found in personal care products, the more the symptoms were manifested by their children. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal – Environmental Health Perspectives.

BAILEY: I CANNOT SEE HOW THE CONCLUSIONS THAT ARE REACHED ARE SUPPORTED BY THE WAY THE STUDY IS DONE.

John Bailey is chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council. That’s the trade association for the companies that make things like cosmetics, shampoo and nail polish.

He says in any study that correlates a behavior to an outcome – there needs to be a control for outside influences.

BAILEY: IN THIS CASE THOSE CONTROLS, AND AGAIN THESE ARE EXTREMELY IMPORTANT, NO MATTER WHAT TYPE OF STUDY YOU’RE DOING, ARE NOT THERE. THEY’RE NOT CONTROLLING FOR THE GENETICS OF THE CHILDREN, THEIR HOME ENVIRONMENT, THEIR DIETS.

Without those kinds of controls, Bailey says there’s no way to draw a conclusion from the study.

Other scientists who’ve looked at phthalates say the Mount Sinai study shows a new area of concern about these chemicals. But it needs to be replicated by other research.

Still, this isn’t the first time this type of correlation has been made. In a study published last year, Korean researchers linked childhood exposure to phthalates to ADHD.

Researcher Stephanie Engel says environmental toxicants, like phthalates, clearly play a role in child neurodevelopment.

ENGEL: THERE’S NOTHING ELSE THAT COULD EXPLAIN THE RESULTS THAT WE’VE OBSERVED. WE SPENT OVER A YEAR PROCESSING THIS DATA AND LOOKING AT IT IN MANY DIFFERENT WAYS. IT IS WHAT IT IS. THESE ARE THE RELATIONSHIPS.

Engel says more study needs to be done. In the meantime, she says pregnant women might want to avoid phthalates in personal care products. They’re not listed on the label – but she says anything that has “fragrance” on the ingredients list probably contains phthalates.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2010. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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