Miodovnik, A, SM Engel, C Zhu, X Ye, LV Soorya, MJ Silva, AM Calafat and MS Wolff. 2011. Endocrine disruptors and childhood social impairment. Neurotoxicology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuro.2010.12.009.
A recent study finds that children with higher fetal exposure to both phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) have impaired social functioning.
The social behavior – including difficult interpersonal and social awareness skills – reported by the moms are similar to those associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. The results add to a growing list of studies on the topic and are published in the journal NeuroToxicology.
Endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s hormones. Hormones are important to brain development and changes in levels of hormones during pregnancy might result in brain changes that could lead to altered childhood behavior. Some researchers believe that hormonal changes during pregnancy may increase the risk of autism or ADHD.
BPA and phthalates are two EDCs found in a wide variety of consumer products. BPA is used in polycarbonate plastics, thermal receipts and food can linings. Phthalates are found in food packaging, cosmetics, personal care products and vinyl plastics.
Animal studies have found that animals exposed to these chemicals before birth can have altered behavior. Some studies in humans have also observed relationships between BPA and phthalates and some aspects of childhood behavior. Additional studies suggest that BPA and phthalates can interfere with hormonal signaling.
Children with autism and ADHD often show impaired social cognition. They often need special education and health services throughout their lives. Some children with these disorders have atypical social communication, mannerisms and responsiveness. Social responsiveness refers to a child’s ability to process and respond to interactions with other people.
In this study, the researchers followed 137 mothers and their children from New York City for nine years as part of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Study. They measured concentrations of endocrine disrupting compounds in the mother’s urine during the third trimester of pregnancy, including phthalates and BPA. When the children were between the ages of seven and nine, they asked mothers to report about their child’s social behavior using a standardized testing scale.
Higher concentrations of BPA or certain phthalates in the urine were associated with more atypical social behaviors. The type of phthalates found in fragrances and personal care products were most strongly associated with the social behaviors, including poorer social cognition, social communication and social awareness. The compounds were not associated other social behaviors tested, such as social motivation or autistic mannerisms.
The researchers note that additional studies are needed and that these findings may not be apply to other groups of children. Additional studies are needed to determine if exposure to these compounds during childhood impacts social behaviors.