UI researchers hope expectant moms will help on $2 million plastics research project

UI researchers hope expectant moms will help on $2 million plastics research project

URBANA – University of Illinois researchers will work with some local pregnant women and their babies to learn more about a worrisome fact of everyday consumer life:

So many products commonly used at home, work and school are made out of plastic – yet so little is known about how regular exposure to two chemicals widely used in plastics – bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates – affects the growing bodies of infants and adolescents.

Susan Schantz, a UI professor of comparative biosciences, and her colleagues hope to learn some of the answers through a new three-year, government-funded research project.

The UI has received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct the research and establish the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at the UI, which is under the direction of Schantz.

Concern about potential health hazards of BPA, used to make shatterproof plastics, and phthalates, a chemical used to makes some plastics more flexible, has been growing in recent years.

So far, there hasn't been enough evidence to assess BPA and phthalates' risk accurately, but studies have indicated enough to make the use of these chemicals in consumer products a concern, according to Schantz.

BPA is used in food packaging, beverage bottles, dental fillings and electronics. Resins made with BPA are used to line metal food cans. Phthalates are used in cosmetics, building materials, food products, wrappers, textiles, toys and pills, according to the UI.

Previous studies have shown BPA winds up in the urine, blood, breast milk and amniotic fluid of pregnant women, and high exposure to phthalates can change hormone levels and cause birth defects in rodents, the UI says.

As a toxicologist, Schantz said, she tends to be conservative about her own use of plastic products.

"But that's just me. The reason we're doing studies like this is we don't know enough about the risk yet," she adds.

The research will include four pilot projects, two focusing on human subjects and two on rodents.

The centerpiece, according to the UI, will be the project enrolling pregnant women through Carle Physician Group.

Carle isn't involved in the research or enrollment, but agreed to provide its prenatal patients written information offering the option of being contacted by a UI researcher to learn more about the project, according to Ray Spooner, a Carle certified nurse midwife.

"It's such an important study," Spooner said.

Women will need to be enrolled before their 16th week of pregnancy, he added.

Women who participate will be asked for urine samples and to provide information about their use of consumer products to determine if the two chemicals are in their bodies and where they may have come from.

Schantz said she hopes to recruit 150 expectant mothers for the study.

The pregnant moms will be asked to notify UI researchers when they're on their way to the hospital to deliver their babies, and tests will begin with their babies within the first 24 hours after birth. The newborns will be shown pictures of human faces and researchers will record how long they look at them.

"With babies, we're interested in how they learn and remember things," Schantz said.

Babies will be tested again at four to five months and again at seven to eight months by researchers observing their reactions to a puppet theater, she said.

Schantz said testosterone and estrogen are important for the sex differences that develop in the fetal and neonatal brain, and both BPA and phthalates are expected to disrupt sex hormones in the body. Part of what researchers will be looking for is whether sex differences are changed by exposure to the two chemicals in plastics.

At Harvard Medical School, Dr. Susan Korrick will assess BPA and phthalate exposures in a group of adolescents she has been studying since the children's births. She will be attempting to determine whether BPA and phthalates exposure changes the development of traits that differ between men and women, according to the UI.

Two other projects at the UI will focus on rats exposed to BPA and phthalates during their infant and adolescent times of life and potential changes in rats' reproductive systems after BPA and phthalates exposure.

Others involved in the research at the UI include comparative biosciences professors Andrea Aguiar and Jodi Flaws and psychology professors Renee Baillargeon and Janice Juraska.

Researchers at Michigan State and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences will also be involved, according to the UI.