Phthalates Exposure in Womb Linked to Autistic Traits in Boys
By George Citroner
- Exposure to phthalates was associated with autism traits in boys (but not girls) between ages 3 and 4 years, according to a new study.
- However, the risk was diminished in women who took folic acid during their pregnancy.
- This study is the first to find that folic acid supplements provide a protective effect from phthalates.
Exposure in the womb to a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates was associated with autism traits in boys (but not girls) between ages 3 and 4 years, according to a new study.
However, fewer of these traits were observed in boys whose mothers took the recommended amount of folic acid during the first trimester, the findings suggest.
"Very few studies looked at autism and its associated traits, with inconsistent findings. We tried to look at this question in a large sample from a Canadian cohort that was designed specifically to look at potential developmental effects of exposure to environmental chemicals," lead author Youssef Oulhote, assistant professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UMass Amherst's School of Public Health & Health Sciences, told Healthline.
Phthalates are commonly used in many products, including soap and cosmetics.
Mothers Recruited From the MIREC Study
Oulhote and team enrolled 2,001 Canadian women with an average age of 33 who were in their first trimester of pregnancy between 2008 and 2011. Less than 10 percent of the women reported regularly drinking or smoking during pregnancy.
All the participants were recruited from the Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC), a longitudinal pregnancy cohort study conducted in Canada.
Researchers collected information from questionnaires, medical charts, and maternal blood and urine specimens during pregnancy and at delivery.
Concentrations of 11 phthalate monoester metabolites were measured in first trimester urine samples at the Toxicology Centre of the Quebec Institute of Public Health.
"We had several limitations, the most important one being that these phthalates exposures may vary in time, and therefore future studies should consider this and try to measure these phthalates at multiple time points in pregnancy," Oulhote said.
Greater Phthalate Exposure Associated With Autism Traits
Researchers performed neuropsychological assessments on 610 of the children born when they were between 3 and 4 years of age.
This included the Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2), a measure of autism traits and social impairment. A higher score means more autism traits are present.
"We looked at autistic traits, not an autism diagnosis, which would have required a very large sample size or a different study design given the rarity of ASD. However, looking at autistic traits provides a very good idea about how these traits occur at a population level," Oulhote explained.
Researchers found that greater concentrations of phthalate chemicals in a mother's urine samples were associated with increases in SRS scores, but only in children whose mothers didn't take a recommended daily folic acid dose (400 micrograms) during their first trimester.
Folic Acid Is Key
This study is the first to find that folic acid supplements provide a protective effect from phthalates. Oulhote also believes that folic acid supplements might block the effects of other toxic chemicals.
"The most surprising and important finding was how adequate important folic acid supplementation was in offsetting the potential effects of phthalates on autistic traits," Oulhote said.
Previous studies have shown folic acid is associated with reduced chance of autism spectrum disorder that's caused by prenatal exposure to pesticides and air pollutants.
Phthalates Affect Health in Many Ways
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break, often called plasticizers.
They're also used as dissolving agents for other materials, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Previous research has shown that children whose mothers are exposed to phthalates during pregnancy were more likely to have motor skill issues, and another found that these children exposed during pregnancy had problems with language development.
Phthalates Are Almost Everywhere
These chemicals are in hundreds of products, including vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, raincoats, and personal care products, like:
- hairs sprays
- nail polish
Phthalates are also an ingredient in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which are used to make plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, blood storage containers, medical tubing, and some children's toys.
Phthalates are almost impossible to avoid in our modern environment, but there are ways to minimize your exposure.
While the Food and Drug Administration mandates that phthalates be listed in the ingredients of personal care products, they don't have to be if they're added as part of the fragrance.
Although companies will label their products "phthalate free," it may be best to call them up and make sure.
New mothers can take simple measures to keep baby safe.
"Once the baby is born, continue to be mindful about chemicals that can cause harm. Look for fragrance-free products that are as all-natural as possible. Keep up with DIY, including for cleaning products, and limit plastics in the house, especially baby bottles and toys," wrote Claire McCarthy, MD, a faculty editor for Harvard Health Publishing, in the Harvard Health Blog.
The Bottom Line
New research finds pregnant women exposed to phthalate chemicals during pregnancy can give birth to boys who show traits of autism.
However, the children of those mothers who took the recommended amount of folic acid showed far less traits.
This is the first study to find that folic acid supplements can protect unborn children from effects of phthalates.
Phthalates are everywhere in our environment, but there are ways to reduce your exposure, including avoiding canned foods, certain plastics, and personal products that contain this class of chemical.
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The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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