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Cosmetics Linked to Problem in Infant Sons

May 27, 2005 | Star Tribune

For the first time, scientists have found evidence that chemicals widely used in cosmetics and plastics and found in pregnant women are adversely affecting genital development in their infant boys.

The findings published by researchers at the University of Minnesota and other institutions could have implications for the chemical industry and for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both have been under pressure by public health groups to establish voluntary controls or regulations on a family of chemicals called phthalates.

The study used the latest analytical equipment to measure phthalates in the urine of 85 pregnant women. Physicians also looked for specific indications of genital development abnormalities in the boys.

In earlier studies, male rodents exposed to some phthalates showed specific genital abnormalities based on one measurement. The new study found similar associations in humans. Mothers who had up to four types of phthalates in their urine gave birth to boys with genital development problems.

The boys, whose average age was 15 months, had one or more developmental issues, including smaller penises and scrotums or less developed testicles, compared to the boys whose mothers had fewer phthalates in their urine, according to a report in today's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

"We were able to show even with our relatively small sample that phthalate-exposed boys have an increased likelihood of a cluster of genital changes," said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Shanna Swan, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Swan said the findings are significant because the concentrations of four phthalates in the mothers' urine were at levels found in more than one quarter of the female population of the United States based on a recent nationwide sample.

She said that researchers still are analyzing data to learn more about the sources of phthalates that affected the mothers and their fetuses. The study involved women and children from Minnesota, California and Missouri.

Researchers relied partly on a measurement known as the anogenital distance (AGD)the distance between the anus and the base of the penis. This measurement has been associated with abnormal genital development in animal studies. Doctors conducting the research on the boys also examined the penis, scrotum and location and size of each testicle.

The measurements were specifically created for this research and are not typical in examinations in doctor visits.

Dr. Christine Ternand, pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School who examined some of the baby boys, said that no one can say whether the infants with shorter AGDs will face problems as adult males. She said it's clear that the infants are "less masculinized" at least at this point in their physical development than those with less exposure to the chemicals.

The study also involved scientists from UCLA, the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Phthalates are used in thousands of products such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing and personal care products.

Three years ago a coalition of environmental and public health groups found phthalates in 52 of 72 beauty products, including deodorants, fragrances, hair sprays and gels and lotions.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a trade group, says that beauty products are not a problem, and that they have been cleared for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and by independent scientific panels.

Tim Kropp, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy group, said that many phthalates are not safe, and that the latest study confirms that exposure to them at everyday levels is causing harm to children. "When it comes to industrial chemicals, we must set safeguards that make sure consumer products are safe before they go on store shelves and into our bodies," he said.

At the FDA, scientists are monitoring the phthalates research, but so far have seen no compelling evidence that they are a safety risk, said agency spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings. "If we determine there is a health hazard, FDA will take the appropriate action to protect the health and welfare of consumers," Rawlings said.

Jane Hoppin, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who was not involved in the latest study, called its findings important and intriguing, in spite of a relatively small number of babies involved. "I wouldn't go out and tell women to not do something because of this, but it does add to the body of literature that suggests that maybe something is going on," Hoppin said.

Ternand called the implications of the research "worrisome," and said that another study with a larger group of mothers and babies needs to be funded. "We're not looking at mouse models any more," she said. "We're looking at infants, which as a clinician bothers me a whole lot more than hearing about something going on with rodents."

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