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Phthalate Exposure Affects Boys' Behavior

Nov 17, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Phthalates, chemicals that enable flexibility in plastics and vinyls, are again, being linked to adverse health outcomes, this time in boys. According to WebMD, women exposed to high phthalate levels during pregnancy may give birth to boys who express behaviors that are less typically masculine.

For instance, said WebMD, boys born by women who were exposed to high phthalate levels, tend to play less with “trucks and other male-typical toys or to play fight,” citing an emerging study. Phthalates are known in testing to cause reproductive disturbances such as decreased sperm count, infertility, and reproductive tract malformations.

Ubiquitous in a wide array of consumer products and industry, phthalates are found in cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, food packaging, and cleaning and building materials, noted the National Academy of Sciences previously. Phthalates can also be found in pacifiers and rubber ducks, and are turning up in all sorts of foods. The compound is also found in, said Science Daily, flooring, cables, and packaging materials and, because of the toxin’s broad use, can be introduced quite easily into the food chain and the human body. A study recently out of ETH Zurich also stated that even when adopting a healthy eating lifestyle, phthalates are difficult to avoid, reported Science Daily.

Phthalates have been linked with male genitalia deformities, diabetes, excess weight, and premature births said Science Daily. No small problem given that synthetics are virtually everywhere. Phthalates—phthalate ester and alcohol—is an organic compound mixed with synthetic rubber for about five million tons annually, said Science Daily.

In the recent study, researchers looked at two phthalates that have been particularly worrisome to environmentalists—DEHP and DBP—said WebMD. The researchers conducted urinalysis on expectant mothers in their 28th week of pregnancy; the women were divided into four groups based on phthalate metabolites and product, said WebMD. Their 145 children and their play behavior was also assessed at three and six years of age, added WebMD. The study appears in International Journal of Andrology.

There was a correlation between mothers in the high concentration groups and boys with lowered masculinity scores, which were increased five-fold over mothers in the lowest concentration group, said WebMD, citing study researcher Shanna Swan, PhD. Swan is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center's Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, and is also a phthalate expert, said WebMD. ''I'm not saying these boys are feminized … they are less likely to play in a male-typical manner," Swan told WebMD. Girls did not exhibit an effect, Swan added.

''We now suspect that the phthalate [exposure] affects the entire body, not just the reproductive tract,'' Swan said, quoted WebMD. Swan added that phthalate exposure might decrease testosterone production in embryos during the eighth and 24th week of gestation, considered a particularly significant time in development, reported WebMD, because it is at this time when testes are beginning to “function,” which alters “sexual differentiation in the brain.”

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