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UMass: Study Finds Prenatal Phthalate Exposure Linked with Autistic Traits in Young Boys

Exposure in the womb to phthalates, a group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals present in cosmetics and other common household products, was associated with autistic traits in boys, ages 3 and 4, but not in girls, according to a new study led by University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences assistant professor of epidemiology Youssef Oulhote. The researchers also found that this link between phthalates and autistic traits was not apparent in children whose mothers had taken the recommended dose of folic acid during the first trimester of their pregnancy.

“This is one of the largest cohort studies about phthalates and neurodevelopment,” says Dr. Oulhote. “One of the most important findings is how adequate folic acid supplementation in pregnancy may offset the potential harmful effects of phthalates in regard to autistic traits.”

Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study is the first to find this particular protective effect of folic acid supplements from phthalates. Dr. Oulhote adds that folic acid supplementation might also block the effects of other toxic chemicals, as already has been shown for pesticides and air pollutants

While autism spectrum disorder “undoubtedly” has an underlying genetic basis, the study’s findings strengthen the evidence that prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals contributes to the development of social impairment traits. Autism spectrum disorder affects about four times more males than females. The study examined only one point in the children’s development.

Dr. Oulhote and colleagues analyzed data from the Maternal-Infant Research on Environmental Chemicals (MIREC) prospective cohort study, which enrolled 2,001 women during their first trimester of pregnancy from 10 cities in Canada between 2008 and 2011.

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