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'Plastics harm unborn boys'

May 27, 2005 15:32 IST
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American scientists have found evidence that common chemicals used in products as diverse as cosmetics, toys, clingfilm and plastic bags may harm the development of unborn baby boys, reports The Guardian.

According to the article, 'researchers have long known that high levels of substances called phthalates have gender-bending effects on male animals, making them more feminine and leading to poor sperm quality and infertility. The new study suggests that even normal levels of phthalates, which are ubiquitous, can disrupt the development of male babies' reproductive organs.'

The study, conducted by scientists across the US, including the University of Rochester and the National Centre for Environmental Health, measured the levels of nine widely used phthalates in the urine of pregnant women and compared them with standard physiological measurements of their babies, The Guardian said.

'It found that women with higher levels of four different phthalates were more likely to have baby boys with a range of conditions, from smaller penises and undescended testicles to a shorter perineum, the distance between the genitals and the anus,' said the report.

The differences indicate a feminisation of the boys similar to that seen in animals exposed to the chemicals.

The report quoted Shanna Swan, an obstetrician at the University of Rochester and lead scientist on the study, as saying that researchers must now unravel what kinds of products are most to blame.

One way that phthalates get into the bloodstream is when they seep into food from plastic packaging. "It's going to take a while to work out which of these sources is most relevant to human exposure," she said.

According to the article, the observed differences in body measurements were subtle, but they indicate that what is generally regarded as the most ubiquitous class of chemicals has a significant effect on newborns.

"Every aspect of male identity is altered when you see this in male animals," the article quoted Fred vom Saal, professor of reproductive biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, as saying. Levels of aggression, parenting behaviour and even learning speeds were affected, he said.

"If it's true, it's sensational. This is the first time anyone's shown this effect in humans. It's an indicator that something's gone seriously wrong with development in the womb and that's why it's so serious," said Andreas Kortenkamp, an expert in environmental pollutants at the School of Pharmacy in London.

 "These are mass chemicals. They are used in any plastic that is pliable, whether it's clingfilm, kidney dialysis tubes, blood bags or toys. Sorting this out is going to be an interesting challenge for industry as well as society," the article quoted him as saying.

According to report, 'the discovery poses a major problem for the chemical industry, already embroiled in a battle with the government over EU proposals on chemical safety. Several types of phthalates, which are used to make plastics more pliable, and have been around for more than 50 years, have been banned, but many are still produced in vast quantities.'

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