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Prenatal exposure to phthalates: what are the effects?

​Researchers from the CEA-Jacob (CNRGH) and their partners have described for the first time changes in placental DNA methylation associated with phthalate exposure during pregnancy. Their analysis used samples from the French mother-child cohort EDEN.

Published on 28 March 2022

The placenta is thought to play a decisive role in the future medical fate of an individual. This hypothesis is central to the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease theory.

In addition to transporting nutrients and waste products between the mother and the fetus, the placenta also influences the programming of the fetal phenotype through epigenetic processes. During embryonic development, these processes can be affected by exposure to different chemical products, a number of which have been associated with developmental disorders, congenital defects and even child health problems.

In particular, certain phthalates – widely used in the packaging of cosmetics and food – can cross the placental barrier and induce changes in cellular homeostasis. Studies suggest that exposure during pregnancy to such phthalates is associated with changes in placental epigenetic parameters including DNA methylation (which modulates gene expression).

To find out more, researchers from the CEA-Jacob analyzed the maternal urine of 202 women from the EDEN cohort, collected between the 22nd and 29th week of pregnancy, in addition to DNA extracted from the fetal side of the placenta following delivery.

This allowed them to link the concentrations of eleven phthalate-derived metabolites (measured in urine) with placental DNA methylation.

Their results suggest that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy is associated with epigenetic mechanisms that could potentially affect fetal development.

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