Exposure before birth to synthetic chemicals now commonly found in the environment could affect development of a child's higher-order brain functions, researchers at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine report in a newly published paper.
The study looked at levels of the chemicals in 256 pregnant women in Greater Cincinnati and in their children at ages 5 and 8. The chemicals measured are called polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluoroalkyl substances, and they are found in flame retardants, water- and stain-repellent products including cleaning products, firefighting foams, upholstery and nonstick cookware.
Ann Vuong, a postdoctoral fellow at UC’s Department of Environmental Health and the study’s lead author, said, “The findings suggest that maternal serum concentrations of (the chemicals) may be associated with poorer executive functioning in school-age children.”
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research.
Vuong looked at the chemical levels in mothers during pregnancy and conducted assessments in the children to evaluate for impairments in executive function, the brain’s processes for focus, working memory, delegation of tasks and emotional control.
The chemicals have entered the air, water and soil from wear and tear of consumer products. People are exposed to the chemicals by ingesting dust, and the chemicals accumulate in body fat.
“Given the persistence of (the chemicals) in the environment and in human bodies, the observed deficits in executive function may have a large impact at the population level,” Vuong said. “Further research is needed to understand and clarify the population impact of their potential neurotoxicity.”
The study sample came out of the Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment Study (HOMES), an ongoing prospective birth cohort in Greater Cincinnati.
In November, UC researchers using the same HOMES study subjects reported children tended to put on weight faster when their mothers had been exposed during pregnancy to a chemical used in fire suppressant and nonstick surface coatings.
The HOMES research, which also includes investigators from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Simon Fraser University and Brown University, seeks to quantify the impact of low-level prenatal and childhood exposures to environmental chemicals on health, growth and neurobehavioral outcomes.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
By Anne Saker