Phthalate Exposure During Pregnancy Linked with Language Delays in Children

Is exposure to phthalates during pregnancy dangerous? We have posted numerous studies over the years linking phthalates to a number of adverse health-related outcomes including preterm births, neurodevelopment problems in children (including lower IQ), miscarriages, infertility, asthma/allergies, and weight gain.

Now researchers in two independent cohort studies examined whether pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates is linked to language development in their children. The short answer is: Yes, there does appear to be a link.


What are phthalates and where are they?

Phthalates are chemical compounds that are commonly found in food containers (where they can migrate into food), in some food products (including conventional and organic milk) where processing uses equipment (like plastic tubing) that contain phthalates, in personal care products (including vaginal douches), and in home care products (including those products that contain “fragrances” like some scented air fresheners and dryer sheets).


Study overview

Researchers from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and Karlstad University in Sweden collaborated to conduct two separate studies to examine whether prenatal phthalate exposure was associated with language development in children at 30 to 37 months of age.

Mothers who had previously been tested for prenatal urinary phthalate metabolite levels completed a language development questionnaire that asked the number of words their children could understand or use at a median of 30 months of age and 37 months of age. The responses were categorized as ‘fewer than 25′, ’25 to 50’, and ‘more than 50 words’, with 50 words or fewer classified as language delay.

Altogether they studied 1,333 mother–child pairs and found in both studies that women’s exposure to dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and butyl benzyl phthalates (BBP) during pregnancy was significantly associated with language delay in preschool-aged children. Approximately 10 percent of the children in the study were affected by language delay. Children whose mothers tested high for DBP and BBP were approximately 30 percent more likely to experience language delay, compared to those children whose mothers’ tests indicated lower levels of DBP and BBP.

What’s next?

Scientists will continue to design and conduct replication studies to determine if the adverse health outcomes already linked with phthalates hold up under a variety of populations and myriad of conditions.  In the meantime, for those people who want to be careful, there are some precautions that can help minimize exposure to phthalates…



Read the labels on all personal care and home care products prior to purchase and avoid those products that contain phthalates–including those products marked as containing “fragrances”.  Keep your home environment as clean as possible (HEPA filters help remove phthalate-containing particles that normally shed from furniture and carpets).  And finally, minimize processed foods (especially highly processed foods) and eat fresh, whole foods whenever possible.  This is especially recommended for couples who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant.


Journal Reference:  Bornehag, C., et al. Association of Prenatal Phthalate Exposure With Language Development in Early Childhood, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, 2018.  doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.3115