Prenatal Exposure to Plasticizers Decreases Fine Motor Functions in Girls
Thu, April 22, 2021

Prenatal Exposure to Plasticizers Decreases Fine Motor Functions in Girls

A group of scientists from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has found a link between early exposure to plasticizers and motor function deficits in girls / Photo by: ammentorp via 123RF

 

A group of scientists from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has found a link between early exposure to plasticizers and motor function deficits in girls. Fine motor skills are the coordination of small muscle and are involved in smaller movements that occur in toes, feet, hands, fingers, and wrists. They also involve other smaller actions, like picking up objects between the thumb, blinking, and writing carefully.

Understanding Plasticizer and Its Uses

A plasticizer is a substance that is added to synthetic resin or plastics to promote or produce flexibility and plasticity. It also decreases the brittleness of a material, thus altering their physical properties.

Columbia University researchers focused on phthalate plasticizers for their research. Phthalates are a group of chemicals found in various products, such as pharmaceuticals, detergents, food packaging, perfumes, shampoos, soaps, aftershave lotions, nail polish, hair sprays, wall covering, and vinyl flooring, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The team’s research, which appeared in the journal Environment International, details that phthalates may interfere with the brain development and motor function of girls while they are in utero.

A plasticizer is a substance that is added to synthetic resin or plastics to promote or produce flexibility and plasticity. It also decreases the brittleness of a material, thus altering their physical properties / Photo by: iakovenko via 123RF

 

Phthalates Crossing the Blood-Placental Barrier

Arin A. Balalian from Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology and colleagues shared that they obtained seven phthalate metabolites in the maternal spot urine of their subjects, who were in their third trimester. These phthalate metabolites were then measured for analysis. The team also evaluated the motor function of kids at age 11 using the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency (BOT-2), which is a test that provides an overview of the fine and gross motor skills of children. The result shows a decrease in the fine-motor skills of girls but not boys. A total of 209 mother and child pairs were a part of their analysis.

The researchers added that phthalates can cross the blood-placental barrier, which helps protect the fetus from being affected by the harmful substances in the maternal blood circulation but still receive oxygen and nutrients via the placenta.

Pam Factor-Litvak, Ph.D., who is also a professor of epidemiology in the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health, said via science research platform Science Daily that there has been a growing awareness about the problems caused by plastics. For their study, they highlight that phthalates are particularly dangerous to children’s health. Girls who have fine motor skill deficits may encounter difficulty doing their schoolwork, such as in writing or even using electronic gadgets. Hand-eye coordination problems may also be experienced.

Environmental Contamination With Phthalates

Phthalates are released into the environment and consequently create risks for living organisms and humans who are exposed to the chemicals. Most exposure to phthalates is from the diet, the team added. This is because phthalates can be part of food packaging. They are also used in perfumes or air fresheners, which means exposure through the air. People may also be exposed to the chemical through skin absorption through personal care products. If it crosses the protective blood-placenta barrier among pregnant women, they are linked to shortened gestational age. Before this study, it was also shown that phthalates alter the thyroid hormone levels which is important for brain development, particularly in the cerebellum.

Phthalates are released into the environment and consequently create risks for living organisms and humans who are exposed to the chemicals. Most exposure to phthalates is from the diet, the team added / Photo by: darksoul72 via 123RF

 

World Consumption of Plasticizer: Statistics

London-based information provider IHS Market shared that phthalates account for 65% of the world’s consumption of plasticizer and is expected to account for 60% of the global consumption of plasticizer in 2022. The largest plasticizer market in the world is China, consuming about 42% of the world’s plasticizer in 2017, followed by Western Europe, United States, India, Japan, Central and Eastern Europe, South Korea, Middle East, Brazil, Other Central and South America, Africa, Thailand, and Indonesia.

IHS Market went on to state that phthalates will continue to be the largest volume driver for the future demand of plasticizers in the world but its overall economic performance may be affected by stricter health regulations, cost of energy and raw material, availability, and shifts in the supply.

Nonphthalate plasticizers, such as benzoates, terephthalates, aliphatics, epoxy, can also be considered as replacements for other phthalates in the market. In the latest IHS Market report, flexible polyvinyl chloride comprises 80 to 90% of the world’s plasticizer consumption because they are usually found in construction (wall coverings, flooring), transportation ( outside and inside of vehicles), packaging, medical uses (blood bags and tubing), furnishings, and electrical materials (cable jacketing and wires).

In South Korea, domestic demand of plasticizer increases over the years as follows: 2010 (267,568 metric tons), 2011 (267, 359), 2012 (257, 930), 2013 (269, 334), 2014 (272, 734), 2015 (271, 837), 2016 (293, 588), 2017 (312, 147), and 2018 (327, 552). The data is based on German database company Statista.

Phthalate plasticizers have long been found to be a health concern but have been set aside because previous studies were more focused on laboratory animals, such as rats and monkeys. Until there is more evidence on the harmful effects of phthalate plasticizers, research on the subject will remain invaluable.