Man-made chemicals are everywhere. They’re in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the products we put on our skin. And we have no idea what most of these chemicals do.

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Chemicals Have Gone Unregulated

The Food and Drug Administration carefully regulates which medications can be sold on the market. However, regulations on chemicals used in industry and manufacturing aren’t nearly as strict. The burden is on the government to demonstrate that a given chemical causes harm, rather than on corporations to prove that the chemicals they use are safe.

And many chemicals have faced no regulation at all. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976, all existing substances were considered automatically safe. More than 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered in. Today, only about 10 percent of chemicals in use have been tested for safety, said Tracey Woodruff, a professor and director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, in an interview with Healthline.

Many of these chemicals have minimal effects on adults at the levels that are present in the environment. However, for a developing fetus, even low levels of many chemicals can disrupt the delicate growth process. The brain is most vulnerable, since it requires a highly complex cascade of signaling chemicals for each nerve cell to grow and communicate properly. Environmental chemicals can easily disrupt this process.

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Can Plastics Affect Brain Development?

Phthalates are plasticizers, meaning that they make plastics more flexible, as well as allow products to hold scents. Past research indicates that phthalates disrupt the body’s hormones, including several that are crucial for brain development.

With rates of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism on the rise, researchers are now taking a closer look at these chemicals to find out what they’re really doing. One new study published in PLOS One examines the effects of phthalates.

The study looked at five types of phthalates. To measure phthalate levels, the researchers collected urine samples from 328 women during their third trimester of pregnancy. Seven years later, they followed up with those mothers and their children and tested the children’s cognitive performance.

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The results were striking. Exposure to two specific phthalates, DiBP and DnBP, predicted a drop in IQ scores. Children of mothers exposed to the highest levels of these phthalates lost an average of six to eight IQ points compared to children of mothers with the lowest exposure levels. The children were also more likely to see reductions in their perceptual reasoning, working memory, processing speed, and verbal comprehension.

“We think that if these results are replicated that the shift in the IQ distribution may lead to a public health problem,” explained Pam Factor-Litvak, associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and lead study author, in an interview with Healthline.

Pthalates aren’t the only chemicals that can produce these kinds of deficits. Other toxins, including lead, methyl mercury, pesticides, flame retardants, and other plasticizers like bisphenol A (BPA) have also been linked to developmental problems.

The lack of testing and oversight “is not fair to pregnant women,” Woodruff said. “Why should they bear the burden of all these chemicals being manufactured, used, and released without anyone testing to make sure they’re safe before they go out on the market? That’s why we need to have the government step in and do something about the laws that govern the use of industrial chemicals in the marketplace.”

In one study, Woodruff tested pregnant women for any of 163 different chemicals. Forty-three chemicals were present in all of the women in the sample, and some women carried as many as 139 of the chemicals in their bodies. “It’s not one [chemical] at a time,” said Woodruff. “It’s many at the same time. That’s why the problem is not only challenging, but urgent.”

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Take Steps to Reduce Exposure

Factor-Litvak and Woodruff offer these recommendations for pregnant women to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals:

  • Avoid microwaving and eating foods wrapped in plastic.
  • Avoid scented products like cleaning supplies, air fresheners, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, and scented personal care products.
  • Avoid plastics #3, 6, and 7, which contain phthalates and BPA.
  • Store food in glass containers instead of in plastic containers.
  • Avoid handling paper receipts.
  • Take off your shoes before entering the house.
  • Use a wet mop frequently — airborne toxins like flame retardants and pesticides cling to dust particles.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before meals.
  • Choose organic and pesticide-free meat and produce.
  • Avoid processed foods.
  • Avoid meats that are high on the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, which can have higher concentrations of mercury.

“It’s not a cure-all,” said Woodruff. “It’s a way that people can try and accommodate things in their lives that are not onerous but which may be helpful in terms of people reducing their personal exposure.”

For more information on which products to choose and which to avoid, visit

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