By Alan Mozes
WEDNESDAY, February 19, 2020 (HealthDay News) – A recent study warns that children whose mothers were exposed to chemicals known as phthalates during pregnancy may face an increased risk of developing behaviors associated with autism.
Phthalates are chemical substances found in many household products, including cosmetics and plastics.
The study did not identify an increased risk of autism per se among children, but rather a "small" increase in the possibility of developing certain autism-related traits at 3 or 4 years. These include social disability, repetitive behaviors and restricted interests, said lead study author Youssef Oulhote. This high risk was not observed in girls.
But it seems that folic acid supplements during pregnancy offer protection against this risk, said Oulhote, an assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
"The main finding of this study is not only that phthalates are associated with more autistic traits, but mainly how proper folic acid supplementation in pregnancy can compensate for these effects and protect them from possible harmful chemicals. This is an important finding." he added.
Phthalates have been the subject of controversy for a long time. Research has suggested that they could alter hormones in developing children. Despite its elimination of many household items, Oulhote noted that phthalates can still be found in a wide range of consumer goods, including fragrances, shampoos and personal care products, detergents, industrial solvents and vinyl floors. They are also found in some plastics, food containers and medical devices.
For the study, researchers reviewed data on approximately 2,000 women in 10 Canadian cities between 2008 and 2011. All were in their first trimester of pregnancy.
Urine samples from women were analyzed to detect 11 phthalate compounds. The researchers also asked about folic acid intake. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the USA. UU. They recommend that all women of childbearing age take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to help prevent some major brain defects.
More than 600 of the participants' children underwent a neurological evaluation and social disability tests at ages 3 to 4.
The result: it was discovered that preschoolers whose mothers had a greater exposure to phthalate during pregnancy were at greater risk of developing certain traits associated with autism. However, this increased risk was not observed among children whose mothers received adequate folic acid supplements during pregnancy.
Oulhote said he was not surprised that girls were not affected since phthalates can wreak havoc on the hormonal system.
The hormonal system "is quite different between boys and girls," said Oulhote. "Therefore, we expect these chemicals to have differential effects by sex."
But in light of the findings regarding young children, should women be alarmed at the possibility of phthalate exposure?
"Autism is complex and most likely a multifactorial disease," said Oulhote. "Genetics play an important role. But there may be other environmental factors that interact with genetic susceptibility to produce autism and its associated traits."
The study, although it only finds an association, suggests that phthalates could be one of those factors.
Although the effect is small, he said, "when this is combined with the fact that these chemicals are ubiquitous and widespread, the effect of these small estimates at the population level can be considerable."
So what should future mothers do? Oulhote suggested that, in general, "everyone should try to reduce their use of fragrances and cosmetics, avoid plastic food packaging whenever possible and, especially, do not heat food in plastic containers."
That thought was seconded by Dr. Andrew Adesman, head of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York in New Hyde Park.
"Although it is probably unrealistic to completely ban phthalates from the market, improving product labeling and increased public awareness are two steps that could help reduce phthalate exposure and some of the risks they may pose," said Adesman , who was not involved in the study.
Meanwhile, "since more and more research suggests that prenatal phthalate exposure can have a variety of adverse effects, young women should try to limit their exposure to these chemicals," Adesman added.
They should also "start taking a folic acid supplement three months before planning to conceive," he recommended.
The findings appear in the February 19 issue of Environmental health perspectives.