Phthalates and BPA Linked to IQ Reductions in Children, but FDA Reasserts the Chemical’s Safety

Story at-a-glance

  • Prenatal phthalate exposure may lead to reduced IQ in children. It also impairs working memory and perceptual reasoning skills
  • According to a randomized, controlled trial, BPA from cans or plastic bottles can raise your blood pressure within just a few hours of ingestion
  • FDA has finished a four-year review of research, announcing that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in food,” and that available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

A number of chemicals found in plastic products are known to act as endocrine disruptors. Being similar in structure to natural sex hormones, they interfere with the normal functioning of those hormones.

This is particularly problematic in children who are still growing and developing, as the glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of your body.

Your endocrine system as a whole is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals have in fact been linked to a number of reproductive health problems.

Phthalates are among the most pervasive of all known endocrine disrupters. According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency1 (EPA), more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced each year.

They're primarily used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible and resilient, but they can also be found in air fresheners, dryer sheets, and personal care products like shampoo, shower gels, and makeup. Their prevalence in personal care products is thought to be the reason why women tend to have higher levels of phthalates in their system than men.

Furniture, upholstery, mattresses, and wall coverings can also contain phthalates. They've even been detected in infant formula and baby food (likely because they migrated from the packaging materials).

Phthalates Now Linked to Reduced IQ in Children

While previous research has linked phthalate exposure to birth defects, low sperm count, polycystic ovary disease, and early or delayed puberty, just to name a few, recent research suggests prenatal phthalate exposure may also lead to reduced IQ in children.2,3

They also found an association between phthalate concentrations in the mother's system during pregnancy and the child's ability to concentrate, working memory, their perceptual reasoning skills, and the time it took for the child to process and retrieve information at the age of seven. As reported by CNN Health:4

"Women who had a high amount of the chemicals called di-n-butyl phthalate and di-isobutyl phthalate in their bodies during pregnancy gave birth to children who had markedly lower IQ scores, according to a new study running in the journal PLOS One.5

The study found that by the age of seven, children exposed to more of these chemicals had IQs that were more than six points lower than children exposed to lower levels of the chemicals...

The results from this study were not entirely what the authors expected. 'We are a little surprised at the magnitude of the IQ drop,' Factor-Litvak said... 'We are not happy about the finding since phthalates are very ubiquitous in the environment.'"

The exact cause for the reduction in IQ is still unknown, as this was only an observational study, but previous animal research has found that:6

  • Phthalates may affect the activity of aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen. Estrogen plays an important role in brain development
  • The chemical may interfere with the production of thyroid hormone, which plays a role in the timing of brain development
  • Phthalates may also disrupt brain activity related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which can produce symptoms like inattention and hyperactivity

BPA Can Have a Direct, Immediate Impact on Cardiovascular Health

Phthalates are not the only endocrine disruptor that can produce chronic health problems. Like phthalates, bisphenol-A (BPA) can be found in countless personal care and plastic products, including the liner of canned goods, plastic- and non-stick food containers, plastic wraps, water bottles, and cashier's receipts.

BPA, which mimics the hormone estrogen, has been linked to:

Structural damage to your brain Early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles, ovarian toxicity,7 and infertility8
Hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness, and impaired learningHeart disease
Increased fat formation and risk of obesityStimulation of prostate cancer cells
Altered immune functionIncreased prostate size, decreased sperm production, and hypospadias9 (penis deformation)

Now we can add high blood pressure to this list. According to a brand new randomized, controlled trial,10 BPA from cans or plastic bottles can raise your blood pressure within just a few hours of ingestion.11 As reported by the New York Times:12

"The study found that when people drank soy milk from a can, the levels of BPA in their urine rose dramatically within two hours – and so did their blood pressure. But on days when they drank the same beverage from glass bottles, which don't use BPA linings, there was no significant change in their BPA levels or blood pressure...

[T]he findings suggest that for people who drink from multiple cans or plastic bottles every day, the repeated exposure over time could contribute to hypertension."

The amount of BPA leaching from the lining of cans may actually be more significant than previously thought. After drinking from a can, the levels of BPA in the participants' urine rose by about 1,600 percent, compared to when they drank soy milk stored in glass.

According to the authors, the effects may be caused by the fact that BPA blocks estrogen receptors that are involved with repairing blood vessels and controlling blood pressure. By disrupting your thyroid hormone, BPA may also affect your blood pressure indirectly. Lead author Dr. Yun-Chul Hong told the New York Times:13

"'Clinicians and patients – particularly hypertension or cardiovascular disease patients – should be aware of the potential clinical problems for blood pressure elevation when consuming canned food and beverages.' ...He recommended that people choose fresh foods and glass bottles over cans and plastic containers, and he urged manufacturers 'to develop and use healthy alternatives to BPA for the inner lining of can containers.'"

Amid Negative Publicity, FDA Reaffirms BPA's Safety

The industry trade group, the American Chemistry Council, has continually insisted that BPA is safe,14 and has opposed both state and federal legislative proposals to ban the chemical.

Interestingly, just three days prior to the online publication of the featured BPA study, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an official announcement15 in which it reaffirms BPA's safety. After a four-year long review16 of 300 studies, the FDA has concluded that "BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in food." The agency also stated that "the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging."

It is beyond irrational to conclude anything other than this verdict is a favor to the chemical industry. There is damning evidence against the use of BPA—particularly in food-related products that is being ignored. Ironically, Bloomberg,17 in reporting on the FDA's announcement, even mentions that there are "more than 800 academic studies that have concluded bisphenol-A could harm reproduction and development." So why did the FDA only review 300? And which 300 did they choose? And if there are 800 showing developmental harm, how is it that they managed to pick 300 that fail to make such a connection?

FDA's Assessment Is NOT in Line with International Findings

The fact of the matter is, when industry funds research, the results are FAR more likely to support the industry's claim of safety and effectiveness, and we know that many BPA studies were funded by the chemical industry. As discussed in a previous article, there's also a hidden network at play. Not only has the chemical industry borrowed the tobacco industry's strategies to keep their products on the market, they're also using tobacco industry 'experts' to back up their safety claims...

For example, industry-funded studies get published in certain journals that in many cases have links to the tobacco industry. The chemical industry has also relied on scientists that previously helped discredit the science linking smoking and second-hand smoke exposure to disease. Leaked minutes18 from a 2009 meeting of the BPA Joint Trade Association also revealed some of the tactics involved in shaping public opinion, regardless of the scientific facts.

Members of this trade association include the American Chemical Council, the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and many others. In this meeting, they explored a variety of messaging strategies. The attendees agreed that "the holy grail spokesperson" would be "a pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA." One of the most disturbing aspects of the chemical industry's efforts to hide hazardous effects is that they purposely target those who are the most vulnerable to damage, such as young children and pregnant women.

The FDA's assessment also flies in the face of a recent report co-produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), titled: "State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals,"19 issued on February 19, 2014. This report suggests an outright ban on endocrine disrupting chemicals may be needed to protect the health of future generations. Touted as the most comprehensive report on endocrine disrupting chemicals to date, it highlights a wide variety of health problems associated with exposure, including:

Non-descended testes in young males Breast cancer in women Prostate cancer in men
Developmental effects on the nervous system in children Attention deficit /hyperactivity in children Thyroid cancer

According to the report:

 "The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety. Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases."

Beware: BPA-Free Claims Are Not an Assurance of Safety

In response to consumer demand for BPA-free products, many manufacturers have switched to using a different chemical called bisphenol-S (BPS). However, BPS appears to be just as toxic as BPA. In some cases, it appears to be even worse! Trading one endocrine-disrupting chemical for another is hardly making products any safer so, unfortunately, the "BPA-free" label may not mean much. Last year, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch discovered that even minute concentrations—less than one part per trillion—of BPS can disrupt cellular functioning.

Metabolic disorders like obesity, diabetes, and even cancer, are potential ramifications of such disruptions. Other animal tests20 also show that BPS has very similar effects as BPA. For example, researchers studying the effects of BPS on zebra fish embryos found that fish exposed to BPS in similar concentrations as that found in the water of a nearby river experienced explosive neuronal growth, which led to hyperactive and erratic behavior.

Fish embryos exposed to BPS had a 170 percent increase in neuronal growth; while those exposed to BPA had a 240 percent increase. Another study using rats found that exposure to either BPA or BPS caused heart arrhythmia in the females. Here, the dose used was similar to concentrations found in humans. The researchers discovered that BPS blocked an estrogen receptor found only in the females, which disrupted the calcium channels. This is also a common cause of heart arrhythmia in humans.

Tips to Help You Avoid Toxic Chemicals

Although it's virtually impossible to steer clear of ALL potentially hazardous chemicals, you can certainly minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind.

  1. Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of BPA and phthalates—particularly cans, but also foods packaged in plastic wrap.
  2. Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans.
  3. Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap. Use glass containers if heating food in your microwave, as heat tends to increase the release of chemicals from plastic. Be aware that even "BPA-free" plastics  typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad as BPA.
  4. Use glass baby bottles for your infants.
  5. Be careful with cash register receipts. If you use a store regularly, encourage the management to switch to BPA-free receipts. I shop at Publix for my food and when I called them about the receipts it turns out they already switched. Nevertheless it is wise to limit your contact with all these receipts.
  6. Look for products that are made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and more. When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings, the latter of which is another source of phthalates.
  7. Choose toys made from natural materials to avoid plastic chemicals like phthalates and BPA/BPS, particularly for items your child may be prone to suck or chew on.
  8. Breastfeed your baby exclusively if possible, for at least the first year (as you will avoid phthalates exposure from infant formula packaging and plastic bottles/nipples).
  9. Use natural cleaning products, or make your own.
  10. Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. EWG's Skin Deep database21 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
  11. Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one.
  12. Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives. While most ingredients in feminine hygiene products are undisclosed, tests suggest they may contain dioxins and petrochemical additives.
  13. Look for fragrance-free products; phthalates are often used to help the product hold its fragrance longer. Artificial fragrance can also contain hundreds—even thousands—of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners, dryer sheets, air fresheners, and scented candles for the same reason.
  14. Check your home's tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary. You may also want to use an alternative to PVC pipes for your water supply.
  15. Teach your children not to drink water from the garden hose, as many are made with phthalate-containing plastics. They are typically more expensive but usually higher quality hoses and well worth the investment.


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