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Pregnant Women in Brooklyn Have the Highest Levels Worldwide of Certain Substances Used as Preservatives in Cosmetics

First Published Report on Parabens in Human Cord Blood Recommends Monitoring to Assess if Risks Exist for Fetal and Adult Health

Brooklyn, NY – Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Arizona State University have published the first study of levels of parabens – antibacterial substances commonly used as preservatives in cosmetics and other products – in human cord blood samples. The researchers found that a cohort of pregnant women in Brooklyn predominantly of Caribbean- and African-American descent had the highest level worldwide of methyl paraben and propyl paraben.

The results were published online in the journal Environment International, in an article titled, “Maternal and fetal exposure to parabens in a multiethnic urban U.S. population.”

The article notes that parabens have been used for decades and, at recommended levels, are “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Union. However, parabens have the potential to disrupt the expression of hormones during influential times of development, possibly affecting fetal, child, and even adult health. The authors point out that recent studies have raised awareness for potential health effects, particularly during fetal development and in children younger than six to 12 months of age, a period when detoxification systems are still immature, “and thus leaving the exposed more vulnerable,” notes senior author Rolf Halden, PhD, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University.

Article co-author Laura A. Geer, PhD, MHS, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate, said, “What we know from the study is that parabens are being transferred from pregnant women to their fetuses.  This is problematic because parabens have demonstrated endocrine-disrupting potential in animal studies, leading to developmental and reproductive disorders.  It is too early to know if these same effects can occur in humans, and if so, at what levels of exposure.”

She adds, “I would not characterize these findings as alarming, but rather of concern, since we do not have relevant regulatory limits for these substances.  The European Union countries set limits by volume per product, a good starting point.  Limiting exposure to these substances is complicated because of their ubiquity in personal care and consumer products. Higher exposure levels in more vulnerable populations, such as in our study, gives further justification for us to answer the questions of what higher levels mean for health.”  In a follow-up study, the authors are examining possible impacts on birth outcomes; results are forthcoming.

The article citation is:

Pycke BF, Geer LA, Dalloul M, Abulafia O, Halden RU. Maternal and fetal exposure to parabens in a multiethnic urban U.S. population. Environ Int. (2015) Nov;84:193-200. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.08.012.

The research leading to the results published in Environment International was supported in part by Award Numbers R01ES015445 and R01ES020889 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust through award number LTR 05/01/12. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIEHS or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This initial study also received funds from the New York Community Trust (1065719). The sponsors had no role in the study outside of funding. The funding sources were not involved in the execution or publication of the study.

Journalists may obtain a copy of the full article by contacting


About SUNY Downstate Medical Center

SUNY Downstate Medical Center, founded in 1860, was the first medical school in the United States to bring teaching out of the lecture hall and to the patient’s bedside. A center of innovation and excellence in research and clinical service delivery, SUNY Downstate Medical Center comprises a College of Medicine, College of Nursing, School of Health Professions, a School of Graduate Studies, School of Public Health, University Hospital of Brooklyn, and a multifaceted biotechnology initiative including the Downstate Biotechnology Incubator and BioBAT for early-stage and more mature companies, respectively.

SUNY Downstate ranks twelfth nationally in the number of alumni who are on the faculty of American medical schools. More physicians practicing in New York City have graduated from SUNY Downstate than from any other medical school.