Born Contaminated

Gray’s Anatomy

A new study found that among hundreds of samples of amniotic fluid collected in the 1980s and 1990s, nearly all contained three contaminants of concern. The study underscores the widespread nature of fetal exposure to these compounds—two types of phthalates and the stain-resisting chemical PFOs—and the need for greater understanding of the long-term health impacts of these exposures. The study is unique for focusing directly on amniotic fluid, and is the first to measure PFOs in fetal liquid.

The phthalates found were DEHP and DiNP, which both function as softeners for plastic and are found in everything from medical tubing to plastic toys to shower curtains and vinyl flooring. Exposure can happen when people eat foods cooked in plastic, touch products or breathe air containing phthalates present in household dust. These phthalates leave the body in less than a day once exposure happens, suggesting that such exposure happens on a regular basis.

Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals which means exposure can disrupt the way the body produces or processes hormones, and they have been linked to serious diseases and disorders in both animals and humans. In animal studies, DEHP administered orally has led to the development of liver cancer. Both phthalates have also been implicated in reproductive malformations in male rats. And exposure to DEHP, measured by concentrations of DEHP metabolites in children, found an association between this exposure and autism spectrum disorders. Prenatal exposure to several phthalates, including DEHP, has also been correlated with poorer motor skills, decreased mental development and behavior problems including anxiety and depression in children.

Meanwhile, the stain-resistant PFOs are found coating carpets, furniture, leather and paper goods. Exposure happens when people eat contaminated food and breathe phthalates released in household dust. Studies have found a connection between exposure to PFOs and altered thyroid function in people. Such disruptions, writes Environmental Health News, could effect “the important suite of thyroid hormones that direct development, metabolism and reproduction.”

Researchers used amniotic fluid collected from 300 women in Denmark pregnant with sons between 1980 and 1996. Some 96-99% of amniotic fluid samples contained DEHP, DiNP and PFOs. These hormone-disrupting chemicals have already been detected in breast milk and umbilical cord blood. Because of their known impacts on hormone production and reproductive systems, phthalates have been banned from use in children’s toys in the U.S. and Europe—but exposure persists from pregnant mothers to infants in the womb.