Phthalates and Your Baby's Brain and Gender Development

Charlotte Brody, RN
Published March 16, 2017
Phthalates and Your Baby's Brain and Gender Development
New data shows that hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates are still widely present in the bodies of women of childbearing age. Last month, the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) released their hazard evaluation of the most recent NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey) data on the phthalates DEHP, DINP, DBP, DIBP and DIBP in WORA (women of childbearing age). A guide to all these initials is included below. More important than these acronyms are the health implications of the CPSC’s hazard evaluation:

1. THE GOOD NEWS: The levels of the phthalate DEHP have gone down in American females ages 15 to 44 (also known as non-pregnant WORA or Women of Reproductive Age). DEHP has received the most attention of all the phthalates for the harm it can cause to baby boys’ reproductive systems. This is the result of strong advocacy efforts by Health Care Without Harm, the Environmental Working Group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Safer States and many other Healthy Babies Bright Futures partners.

2. BUT NOT SO FAST: This good news is only “sorta” good. While DEHP has gone down, the levels of some other phthalates have gone up in women who may become pregnant. The CPSC scientists are focused on this subset of Americans because the period between conception and birth is most vulnerable to the harmful effects caused by phthalates. Phthalates block the male hormone testosterone that baby boys in utero need to be able to fully develop as male. Studies have also shown that prenatal exposure to phthalates can also harm the healthy development of female reproductive systems and the behaviors, IQs and learning abilities of both boys and girls. Last Thursday, yet another study came out that showed that when pregnant women have more phthalates in their bodies, they produce less of the hormones their babies need to develop a healthy reproductive system.

3. THE FINE PRINT: There are still increased levels of overall phthalates, which is bad. Some of the phthalates with exposures that are going up are less potent versions of DEHP. Other of the replacement phthalates just haven’t been studied very much but are structured very much like DEHP. Exposing a baby to more of a less potent hormone jolt or to a phthalate that we just don’t know much about is not the same as making the world safer for babies.

4. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Let’s treat phthalates as an entire group which needs to be eliminated. Given how little we know about most of the 85,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, we need to take what we do know and apply it to classes of chemicals. In the last two years, 65 studies have been published that show how phthalates are harming people. That’s ample warning to move away from the use of all phthalates in the products we use every day. We can move the dialogue away from phthalates with different acronyms to the production and use of truly safer products.


CDC - Centers for Disease Control (U.S.)
CPSC - Consumer Product Safety Commission (U.S)
DBP - Dibutyl phthalate
DIBP - Diisobutyl phthalate
DEHP - Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
DINP - Diisononyl phthalate
DNOP - Di-n-octyl phthalate
NHANES - National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
WORA - Women of Reproductive Age (15-45 years old; non-pregnant)