Phthalates is a family of chemicals that is commonly found in household products, and a new study shows they could alter the development of fetuses. In developing males, the substances could affect the masculinization of genitalia.
These endocrine disruptors are typically found in health and beauty aids, food containers, and many plastics.
Hormones can be altered by the presence of phthalates, including human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is normally created by the placenta during pregnancy. The substance can be detected in the urine and blood of pregnant women, revealing information about the developing fetus.
"The placenta, which is an extension of the fetus and a target of the chemicals in our bodies, broadcasts information early in pregnancy, through hCG, about what might be occurring to the fetus (from) chemical exposure," Jennifer Adibi from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health said.
Phthalates can also block testosterone, an essential hormone in human males, researchers discovered.
Researchers studied the anogenital distance, a measurement taken at birth of the space between the anus and genitals on a newborn. Longer anogenital distances are associated with a higher sperm count and greater fertility later in life.
Measurements taken of newborns were compared to blood and urine samples taken, between 2010 and 2013, of 362 women in their first trimester of pregnancy, as part of The Infant Development and the Environment Study (Tides).
Analysis of the data revealed that a significant correlation existed between hCG concentrations in pregnant women and shorter anogenital distances in male newborns. The effect was seen in males 20 to 30 percent of the time, compared to around eight percent in female babies. Researchers are uncertain why the chemical has differing effects on newborns, depending on gender.
"There is growing societal concern over pediatric disorders that have a basis in the fetal period and which may be more common in one sex or another, such as autism, attention deficit disorder, obesity, asthma and infertility. It is important to find out if chemicals in our food or environment might influence these conditions," Adibi said.
This was the first study to examine the targeting of hCG by phthalates in utero. Future research will study women in their first trimester, to assess potential phthalate exposure, and examine their babies at birth, in order to determine the effect of the chemicals.
Health care providers may be able to use this new finding to test women early in pregnancy, in order to determine whether exposure to phthalates could potentially harm their offspring.
"Phthalates are pervasive. Reducing exposure to phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals is something that needs to be addressed at a societal level through consumer advocacy and regulation, and education of health care providers," Adibi said.
Photo: Bridget Coila | Flickr