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Phthalates Under Scrutiny Again As Study Links the Chemical to Lupus in Mice

Jul 19, 2005 |

It has been a rather bad couple of months for the chemical compound known as phthalate.

Following closely on the news that the substance has been linked to reproductive abnormalities in humans come the results of another study that suggest a connection between the chemical and lupus.

Lupus is an auto-immune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues as though they were foreign substances. The disease is potentially fatal and often damages the kidneys, heart, lungs, or blood cells.

Researchers at Indiana State University injected mice with phthalates. They found the injections triggered lupus, caused development of glomerulonephritis, and considerably shortened lifespan in mice that have a genetic disposition to the disease but not in other mice that are not pre-disposed to the illness. The research is published in the July issue of the Journal of Autoimmunity.

“Our findings clearly show that lupus can be caused by an environmental factor like phthalate,” said Swapan K. Ghosh, professor and interim chair of life sciences at Indiana State.
As has previously reported, the debate over phthalates in a host of cosmetics, personal care products, and other consumer goods continues to escalate as additional studies are done and new evidence of potential risks posed by the chemicals is documented.

One of the real problems with these particular chemicals is that most consumers have never heard of them and are unaware of their presence in hundreds of everyday products. Phthalates also escape mention on most product labels.

Phthalates, a group of chemicals found in many cosmetics and personal care products, have been used for approximately 50 years. In the past year, however, the $32 billion cosmetic industry has been put on the defensive with respect to the use of these chemicals as a result of animal testing, regulatory restrictions imposed by the European Union (EU), and an ongoing investigation by the FDA.

Phthalates can be found in hair sprays, deodorants, shampoos, nail polish, perfumes, body washes, and skin creams. They make nail polish chip resistant and fragrances longer lasting. They are also found in some insect repellants, detergents, vinyl products (raincoats, shower curtains, etc.), medical equipment, and food packaging.

Although industry spokespersons maintain that there is no reliable evidence that the chemicals pose any risk to humans, recent studies have raised concerns.

Rats exposed to phthalates have a higher rate of birth defects related to the male reproductive system and other studies suggest possible links to early puberty in girls and decreased sperm counts in men.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that phthalate levels in young women were much higher than average.

The EU has banned two phthalates from cosmetics sold on the continent and at least two companies (Revlon and Proctor & Gamble) have removed those particular chemicals from products sold in the United States.

As a result of these concerns and pressure from groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of environmental and consumer groups, the FDA has been conducting its own investigation with respect to the safety of these chemicals. To date, however, the agency has taken the position that no risk is posed by phthalates in cosmetics. This has been the general consensus among various federal agencies which base their conclusion on the negligible amount of exposure involved.

Until now, an indication that these chemicals might be harmful in some way to humans were test results that showed rats exposed to phthalates have a higher rate of birth defects related to the male reproductive system.

Other studies only suggested possible links to early puberty in girls and decreased sperm counts in men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that phthalate levels in young women were much higher than average. Phthalates are easily absorbed through the skin or nail bed and are ingested in food or through the air.

A small study of 85 mothers and their baby sons released in May, however, indicates that when four particular phthalates are found above certain concentrations in the urine of pregnant women, the reproductive systems of their infant boys may be adversely affected.

The abnormalities detected include smaller penises and scrotums, and less developed testicles. It appears that the chemicals suppress production of the male sex hormone testosterone. The researchers found 25% of the women in the United States have concentrations of these four phthalates at this concentration level.

The study involved scientists and doctors at a number of universities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the United States Environmental Protection Agency and was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Many experts, environmental groups, and consumer advocates have expressed concern over these findings and have called for the immediate implementation of strong regulations to eliminate this serious health threat.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is not letting up its pressure on state legislators to ban phthalates and other harmful chemicals currently used I cosmetics. California attempted to pass a law banning phthalates in beauty products but the bill was voted down in May. New York is presently considering similar legislation.

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