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Phthalates in Hairspray May be Linked to Birth Defects

Nov 25, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives is reporting that boys born to women who have been exposed to hairspray in the workplace may experience an increased risk of being born with hypospadias, a genital defect, according to the BBC.

Imperial College London scientists looked at women who gave birth to baby boys who were born with hypospadias, a defect in which the urinary tract is below the penis, said the BBC.  The study found that  hairspray exposure more than doubled the risk of this defect.  NHS.UK noted that hypospadias is one of the most common genital birth defects in baby boys, affecting approximately one in 250 baby boys born in the United Kingdom.

According to the BBC, hypospadias has been on the rise in recent years and some experts feel that the cause may be linked to phthalates, toxic chemicals found in plastics; phthalates are also found in hairspray.  Phthalates are known to cause hormonal disruptions and are banned in toys in the European Union for years now with some phthalates banned from cosmetics, including hairsprays, since 2005, the BBC said.  

The hairspray study looked phthalate use in high doses, such as what can be found in hairdressers, said the BBC.  The researchers interviewed 471 women who gave birth to babies with hypospadias, as well as a similar number of women who gave birth to babies with no hypospadias.  According to the BBC report, the births took place in 1997 and 1998, and the interviews took place between 2000 and 2002.  The researchers found that about twice as many woman whose children were born with hypospadias had been exposed to hairspray as part of their jobs.

Professor Andreas Kortenkamp, the head of the Centre for Toxicology at the School of Pharmacy, University of London, told the BBC that the study represented "important research" and that the UK government should follow Danish authorities and advise women about the evidence linking phthalates to health problems.  "I don't think we can continue to leave women alone to make decisions about these things—they need a bit of guidance, to know where these chemicals are.  Certainly, if this was the mother of my children who was pregnant, I would strongly advise her to stay away from these."  

In the United States, phthalates are at the center of a controversy involving a newly enacted consumer protection law banning toys made with phthalates effective February 10, 2008.  The new law bans the use of certain phthalates in toys and products made for children under 12 years of age; however, toys produced before the effective date will remain on the market and—until the ban becomes effective—retailers and manufacturers can continue to rid themselves of their dangerous inventory,  USA Today said.  Worse, according to the newspaper, no one is under any legal obligation to label which products do and do not meet the standards mandated in the new law.  That  means that toys and other products—including teething rings and pacifiers—can be sold to consumers without any mention that they contain phthalates.

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