Prenatal exposure to pollutants affects children’s play behaviour

Higher exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins whilst in the womb affect the way that children play, with boys and girls affected in different ways, say Dutch scientists.

Researchers from Erasmus University and Sophia Children’s Hospital of Rotterdam have revealed in a paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that higher prenatal exposure to PCBs is associated with less masculinised play behaviour in boys, but more masculinised play behaviour in girls. At the same time, prenatal exposure to dioxins is associated with more feminised play behaviour in both genders. However, exposure to the pollutants through breast milk, following birth, had no effect on the children.

“We suggest that these results may indicate behavioural effects of steroid hormone imbalances early in development related to prenatal exposure to PCBs and dioxins, their metabolites, and/or related compounds,” say the authors. However, how the toxins influence steroid hormones remains unknown.

The researchers have been studying the effects of the two pollutants on children since 1990. In this particular case, 189 children with an average age of seven-and-a-half were studied, using parental questionnaires. Parents were asked questions such as whether a child prefers playing with tools or with dolls, prefer taking care of babies versus climbing, and avoiding dirt versus taking risks.

Results of play behaviour were then cross referenced with data on PCBs and 17 dioxins in the umbilical cord blood and in the mother’s blood and breast milk. The researchers also evaluated which children had been breast-fed as babies.

The researchers intend to continue to study the children in order to assess potential implications on later development.

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