Being exposed to phthalates while pregnant linked with reduced motor skills in daughters

A woman's exposure to phthalates while pregnant, which are found in everyday products such as cosmetics, may contribute to a deficit in her daughter's motor skills

New US research has found that exposure to the chemicals known as phthalates while pregnant may be linked with lower motor skills in girls.

Carried out by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH), the new study looked at 209 New York City women and their children, and measured seven phthalate metabolites in the mother's urine during the third trimester of pregnancy, then assessing the children's motor function at age 11.

The findings, published in the journal Environment International, showed that after taking into account possible influencing factors, girls whose mothers were exposed to high levels of certain phthalate metabolites showed a significant decrease in their fine-motor function. The team say these girls may have difficulty with their schoolwork, experience problems writing and using electronic devices, and may have problems with hand-eye coordination.

However, no association was found among the boys.

Phthalates are used in many everyday products such as shampoo, makeup, household building materials, toys, medical devices and car interiors. They are easily released from plastics and into the environment, and most of our exposure to them is from the air around us (as they are used in products such as air fresheners and perfumes), from our diet (they are used in food packaging), and through skin absorption (as they are used in personal care products). 

They are also able to cross the blood-placenta barrier and have previously been shown to alter the levels of thyroid hormones, which are essential for brain development, in particular the part of the brain which is partly responsible for coordination and fine-motor movements, and disrupt the neurons linked with the development of fine-motor skills, which develop earlier in girls than in boys.

They have also been linked with health problems in children such as disrupted reproductive development in boys and impaired cognitive function and behavioral outcomes.

"There's a growing awareness of the problem of plastics, which are destructive to animal life and ecosystems," says senior author Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD. "In this study, we have found new evidence that phthalates -- chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and plastics -- are harmful to children's health."