Chemicals found in household products affect brain development

University of Illinois Extension Services

Research shows for safety reasons it is best to store food in glass containers instead of plastic, and never microwave plastic containers

From canned baby food to scented shampoos, chemicals that disrupt the body’s normal functions are everywhere. Many common products contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which can harm the brain and body.

EDCs are found in toiletries and cosmetics, as well as in plastic medical equipment, vinyl plastics, PCB pipes, and food packaging. Phthalates are man-made chemicals, with 4.9 million metric tons produced worldwide annually. That new car smell is phthalates added to the vinyl interior.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical added to plastic water bottles for flexibility and used in receipt paper to add shine.

“The government banned BPA in most products due to research suggesting it damages reproductive organs,” says Elli Sellinger, a doctoral student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Today, it is replaced with BPS and BPF, which are incredibly similar chemicals with similar health outcomes.”

The main source of exposure to EDCs is food. Phthalates and BPA are attracted to fat. If a burger is wrapped in plastic, phthalates are likely to leach out of the plastic and into the food.

“Because we come in contact with a number of these objects in our everyday lives, we all have some level of phthalates in our bodies,” says Sellinger.

EDCs disrupt how hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and the thyroid, work in the human body.

Hormones work like a lock and key, where hormones are the key.

“They can only bind or unlock certain receptors on certain cells in your body,” says Sellinger, “Endocrine disruptors come in and mess with this communication.”

The developing brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, is very sensitive to chemicals in the environment. Early exposure to phthalates for pregnant women can lead to inattention, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, lower IQ, and slowed sensorimotor development in their child.

“A large chuck of brain development happens in the womb. For the brain to develop, cells must divide, migrate to the right spots in the brain, make connections, and die if there are extra,” says Sellinger. “For all of these processes to work, they need hormones.”

BPA exposure can lead to aggression, defiance, anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, poor short-term memory, poor emotional control, social deficits, and language delay in children. It also changes the gene expression, or direction of a cell, which is commonly seen in kids with autism.

So, who is the most at risk? Phthalates and BPA seem to impact developing babies and infants the most.

To limit exposure to phthalates and BPA, buy fresh produce and use less packaged and canned food. Store food in glass containers instead of plastic, and never microwave plastic containers.

Other tips:

  • Choose fragrance-free (not unscented) personal care products.
  • Avoid products with fragrance, perfume, phthalate, DEP, DBP, DiBP in the ingredients.
  • Choose glass and metal over plastic water bottles.
  • Skip the receipt.
  • Keep floors clean since BPA and phthalates collect in dust.
  • Sellinger’s full presentation, “Our Chemical Environment: Phthalates, BPA, and the Developing Brain”, is available to watch online at