to study effects of plastics chemicals on children’s health
A new research center based at the University
of Illinois will investigate whether regular exposure to bisphenol
A (BPA) and phthalates – chemicals widely used in plastics and
other consumer products – can alter infant and adolescent development,
cognition or behavior.
A $2 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental
Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health and the
United States Environmental Protection Agency will establish
the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research
Center at Illinois. Four pilot projects will be conducted over
the next three years at Illinois and Harvard University.
BPA and phthalates are endocrine disruptors. They mimic natural
hormones and thus can interfere with hormone signaling in the
BPA is used to make shatterproof plastics and is a component
of many containers and bottles, PVC pipes, dental fillings and
electronics. Resins made with BPA line metal food and drink containers.
Human studies have found BPA in many tissues and fluids, including
urine, blood, breast milk and the amniotic fluid of pregnant
The National Toxicology Program conducted a review of laboratory
studies on animals exposed to BPA in 2008 and reported that while
there was little evidence that exposure to BPA was harmful to
adults, there was “some concern for effects on the brain, behavior
and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at current
human exposures to bisphenol A.”
Phthalates increase the durability, transparency and flexibility
of some plastics. They also are used as emulsifiers, lubricants,
stabilizers, binders and coatings in cosmetics, building materials,
food products, wrappers, textiles, toys and pills. Studies have
found that high exposure to some phthalates can alter hormone
levels and cause birth defects in rodents.
The four pilot projects will evaluate the effects of BPA and
phthalate exposure on infants and adolescents. Two of the projects
will focus on human subjects, and two will involve rodents.
The centerpiece of the studies is a project that looks at exposure
to BPA and phthalates in relation to the physical and mental
development of infants. Carle Physicians Group in Champaign-Urbana
will collaborate on this project, called Illinois Kids (I-Kids).
The researchers will follow pregnant women and their babies,
measuring BPA and phthalate levels in the urine every month and
collecting data on possible sources of exposure. The babies will
also undergo physical, behavioral and cognitive tests.
“We’re going to see the babies within the first 24 hours of birth
and collect a lot of data about their growth and development
but also about their cognitive function,” said Susan Schantz,
a professor of comparative biosciences at Illinois, an environmental
toxicologist and the director of the new center.
“These chemicals are endocrine disrupters,” she said. “BPA is
estrogenic and phthalates are anti-androgenic, so both are expected
to disrupt sex hormones in the body.”
Testosterone and estrogen are important for the sex differences
that develop in the fetal and neonatal brain. Male and female
babies normally differ in their physical attributes and also
in their cognitive abilities and behavior, Schantz said. “We
want to see if those sex differences are changed by the exposure
to these chemicals,” she said.
Two developmental psychologists at Illinois, comparative biosciences
professor Andrea Aguiar and psychology professor Renee Baillargeon,
will conduct the cognitive and behavioral tests. The researchers
hope to follow the infants for many years.
In a separate project, a collaborator at Harvard Medical School,
Susan Korrick, M.D., will assess the BPA and phthalate exposures
of a group of adolescents she has been following since they were
Korrick will conduct neuropsychological assessments of her subjects
and measure traits, such as verbal or spatial reasoning, known
to differ between males and females at this age.
“Adolescence is another period where sex hormones have a big
impact on brain development and behavior and even physical development,”
Schantz said. This project will allow researchers to determine
if exposure to BPA and phthalates hinders normal hormone signaling
and alters the development of traits that differ between the
Illinois psychology professor Janice Juraska will conduct similar
studies in rats exposed to the same chemicals “at time periods
in the rats’ lives that parallel prenatal development and adolescence
in humans,” Schantz said. Juraska will evaluate cell density
in various brain regions to get a fuller picture of any changes
that accompany exposure to the chemicals.
A fourth project will look at potential changes in the reproductive
systems of male and female mice exposed to BPA and phthalates.
Illinois comparative biosciences professor Jodi Flaws, a reproductive
toxicologist and associate director of the new center, and National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences researcher Humphrey
Yao, a reproductive biologist, will use genetically altered mice
to reveal the mechanisms by which these hormone mimics act on
“Investigators from all four projects will work together closely
to obtain a cohesive picture of the effects of bisphenol A and
phthalates on infant and adolescent development, cognition, and
behavior,” Flaws said.
A key focus of the center will be education and outreach to the