Plastic-softening chemicals in medical devices could lead to brain problems in kids: Scientists

Scientists have found that children hospitalized in intensive care units are more likely to develop attention deficit disorders further down the road, and now, they've uncovered a link. Researchers in Belgium saw that plastic-softening chemicals in medical devices can lead to neurocognitive issues in kids.

The chemicals, which are added to medical devices such as plastic tubes and catheters, seep into a child's bloodstream while they're being treated in intensive care and can adversely affect their brain function. Plastic softeners have already been banned from children's toys because of their potential toxic and hormone-disrupting effects, and the latest study shows that they are still causing problems, lead researcher Sören Verstraete, PhD student at KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, said in a statement.

"We found a clear match between previously hospitalized children's long-term neurocognitive test results and their individual exposure to the phthalate DEHP during intensive care," Verstraete said. The team published their findings in a recent issue of Intensive Care Medicine.

Scientists got their results by running a study with 100 healthy children and 449 children who underwent treatment in a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) and who received neurocognitive testing four years later. Researchers measured blood levels of the plastic byproducts, or DEHP metabolites, in healthy children and 228 patients in the PICU. The PICU subjects had one to 12 medical tubes and were aged newborn to 16 years.

The team saw that while healthy children had almost no detectable plastic byproducts in their bloodstream, the critically ill children had "sky-high" levels of the chemicals. And even though the levels dropped off, they were still 18 times higher until the patients were discharged from the PICU, researchers said in a statement.

The higher levels of chemicals were associated with attention deficit during neurocognitive testing four years after discharge. Exposure to the plastic byproducts "explained half of the attention deficit in PICU patients," with other factors accounting for the other half," Verstraete said. "Development of alternative plastic softeners for use in indwelling medical devices may be urgently indicated," he said.

- read the statement

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