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The Hidden Ingredient in Hundreds of Products That Can Harm Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

If you're into buying more natural products in your household because you're worried about your kids being exposed to chemicals and additives, you're definitely not alone. And you're also definitely not crazy for thinking that way. Researchers say that especially if you have daughters, your worries aren't misplaced.

Little girls exposed to phthalates in early childhood showed signs of lowered thyroid function, researchers at Columbia University have found.

OK, but what does that mean and should you be worried? Studies like this one can be a pretty dry and confusing read—especially when you’re concerned about how the findings might relate to your own child’s health—so let’s take a moment to break it down starting with phthalates.

Phthalates (pronounced “tha-lates”) are a family of chemicals that are used to make plastic and vinyl softer and more flexible; they're also used in in cosmetics, personal care items, perfume, hairspray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, detergents and hundreds of other consumer products.

The problem with phthalates is that they're thought to be endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system is responsible for producing and secreting hormones that regulate growth, metabolism and so much more. The thyroid is one of the glands in the endocrine system.

"The thyroid acts as the master controller of brain development," Dr. Pam Factor-Litvak said in a statement about the study. "Thyroid hormones set the schedule, and if the timing is out of synch, there may be later consequences in the brain. The thyroid disruptions we see in this study, although they fall within the normal range, could explain some of the cognitive problems we see in children exposed to phthalates, and we are currently investigating that. As we know from lead, even small exposures can make a big difference."

The study used a spot urine sample taken from 229 women in the latter part of their pregnancy and then from their children at 3 years of age to measure the level of certain phthalates. The 3-year-olds also had two thyroid hormone levels checked. Researchers found that girls exposed to a group of common phthalates had lower levels of thyroid function.

The boys in the study exposed to the same phthalates did not experience lowered thyroid function.

Women are more prone to thyroid issues than men, so the gender-specific results at such a young age are definitely interesting. "Girls may be more vulnerable to the effect of thyroid-disrupting chemicals," Factor-Litvak said, "even in early childhood."

That’s great news for the boys, but not great news for the girls, since thyroid hormones help control brain development. And although the study was small, it's certainly not something to be ignored.

“Going forward, it’s important to learn what phthalates do to harm children, as well as the route by which this harm is inflicted,” said Factor-Litvak.

This study adds to the growing body of literature that suggests early exposure to some phthalates may affect endocrine function in children. Previous studies at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University have suggested that there's a correlation between prenatal phthalate exposure and the risk of a lower IQ at 7 years of age, childhood asthma and mental/motor development issues in preschoolers.

"Parents with young children should avoid using products containing phthalates such as shampoos, nail polish and vinyl flooring," advises Factor-Litvak.

Unfortunately, listing phthalates on product labels is not mandatory, so parents don’t have much to go on. One clue is to look for “fragrance” on the list of ingredients as that tends to be where many products hide their phthalates.

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