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Phthalates Interfere with Developing Fetus, Mother

— January 24, 2022

Phthalates, used to make plastics, could negatively impact a healthy pregnancy.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more durable.  They are commonly called plasticizers and are used to help dissolve other materials.  Phthalates are in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, some oils, and personal care products including soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, according to federal data.  However, exposure to phthalates may upset an important hormone needed to maintain a healthy fetus and leading to complications that could impact a developing baby as well as be harmful to the child’s mother.

“It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities,” said Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, who led the study. “The mothers were shocked.”

Phthalates Interfere with Developing Fetus, Mother
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

The journal Environment International published the work and it was one of the first pieces of research to take a look at the impact that phthalates have on the placental corticotropin releasing hormone (pCRH), which increases throughout the course of pregnancy.  The placenta is key for providing nutrients to an unborn child.  It develops in the uterus during pregnancy and provides what the baby needs as well as removes waste products from the baby’s blood.

The pCRH hormone helps with promoting labor as well.  However, when levels are high or increase rapidly, it could induce preterm birth and fetal growth problems as well as high blood pressure, diabetes, and postpartum depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The team analyzed data from 1,018 low-risk pregnant women with one fetus at mid- and late pregnancy.

“We are all exposed to phthalates in our environment through the products we use and the foods we eat,” said Emily S. Barrett, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and member of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. “Our findings show that these chemicals may alter the production of essential placental hormones, which has important implications for the course of pregnancy as well as subsequent child health and development.”

The data revealed that the presence of “various phthalates was associated with higher pCRH hormone levels in mid-pregnancy, but lower pCRH later in pregnancy.”  Moreover, “These levels were strongest in women who developed pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, suggesting that women who develop complications may be particularly vulnerable to this hormonal disruption.”

“Associations between phthalates and pCRH among women with pregnancy complications grew stronger across the course of pregnancy.  We know very little about how women with pregnancy complications are affected by environmental exposures. This study sets the stage for future research in that area,” Barrett said.

When pCRH is generated from the placenta, it is identical in structure to a corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) produced by the brain when responding to stress.  While this study did not find that women with other vulnerabilities were more susceptible to this response, previous research found that pCRH levels were higher in women who have experienced childhood trauma.  This could suggest that there are mitigating factors other than being exposed to plastics which could impact both the mother and the developing fetus.


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