Phthalates, human-made chemicals in the plastics we use, are negatively impacting brain development in kids, according to a group of volunteer scientists, health professionals and child advocates.
CNN  — 

Synthetic chemicals called phthalates are damaging children’s brain development and therefore must be immediately banned from consumer products, according to a group of scientists and health professionals from Project TENDR.

Project TENDR, which stands for Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks, is a group of volunteer scientists, health professionals and child advocates working to study and reduce children’s exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and pollutants.

“What we want to accomplish is to move the public health community, including regulators, toward this goal of elimination of phthalates,” said lead author Stephanie Engel.

“We have enough evidence right now to be concerned about the impact of these chemicals on a child’s risk of attention, learning and behavioral disorders,” said Engel, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“I hope that this paper will act as a wake-up call to understand that early life exposure to this class of chemicals is affecting our children,” said toxicologist Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, as well as the National Toxicology Program. She was not involved in the paper.

“When you have the same kind of findings repeated in multiple populations, done by different investigators using different tools and approaches and you keep coming up with the same finding, I think you can begin to say that the data is pretty clear,” Birnbaum said.

CNN reached out for comment from the trade association American Chemistry Council.

“While we are encouraged by continuous research efforts into the science and health of phthalates, we are concerned about the over interpretation of studies that have not established a causal link between phthalates and human adverse health effects,” said Eileen Conneely, senior director of the chemical products and technology division of ACC.

‘Everywhere chemicals’

Called “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common, phthalates are added to consumer products to make the plastic more flexible and harder to break.

Phthalates are found in hundreds of auto, home, food and personal care items: food packaging; detergents; vinyl flooring, clothing, furniture and shower curtains; automotive plastics; lubricating oils and adhesives; rain and stain-resistant products; and scores of products including shampoo, soap, hair spray and nail polish, in which they make fragrances last longer.

Phthalates must be listed among the ingredients on product labels, unless they are added as a part of the scent. Under current US Food and Drug Administration regulations, phthalates can be simply labeled “fragrance,” even though they could be as much as 20% of the product, studies say.

Phthalates are also in PVC plumbing and building products and items such as medical tubing, garden hoses, and some children’s toys. Globally, approximately 8.4 million metric tonnes of phlathates and other plasticizers are consumed annually, according to European Plasticizers, an industry trade association.

Studies have connected phthalates to childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular issues, cancer and reproductive problems such as genital malformations and undescended testes in baby boys and low sperm counts and testosterone levels in adult males.


The new call to action, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, focuses specifically on the link between phthalate exposure and long-lasting neurodevelopmental harm in fetuses, infants and children.

By 2019, more than 30 studies had examined prenatal exposure to different types of phthalates, and long-term studies had been done in 11 different countries or territories around the globe, the report said. Not all of the papers had found consistent results, especially in the area of cognitive development, but the report’s authors said that might be due to difference in study designs and children’s ages.

The report said the strongest associations have been found with hyperactivity, aggression, defiance, emotional reactivity, delinquent behaviors and other signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, after exposure to phthalates.

One study, for example, found children of mothers with the highest levels of phthalates in their urine during their second trimester had almost three times the odds of being diagnosed with ADHD as children with mothers who had much lower levels.

A link between phthalate exposure and poorer working memory and intelligence has also been found. One study discovered children who were exposed to higher levels of phthalates in utero had an IQ level that was seven points lower than children with less exposure. The highest-risk kids also had reduced perceptual reasoning and verbal comprehension.

Conneely of the ACC, however, pointed to recent systematic reviews that pulled together available data on neurobehavioral and cognition effects and “concluded that there was no association between DINP and DIDP and neurobehavioral or cognitive effects.”

Diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP) are two of the many types of chemicals in the family of phthalates.

In addition, Conneely said, “data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show exposure levels to phthalates are well below the levels determined by US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies to be safe.”

It’s true that “federal regulation of phthalates in the United States has been minimal with several exceptions, including restrictions on 8 phthalates in children’s toys and childcare articles,” the study said.

However, the study continued, “we strongly urge both federal and state agencies to move rapidly to eliminate phthalate use,” adding that “states should not wait for the federal government to act, as state action can galvanize federal regulation.”

In response to CNN’s request, an EPA spokesperson provided the following comment.

“As the Biden-Harris Administration works to