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A chilling look at phthalates’ effects on health

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written another chilling column on the health dangers of endocrine disruptors, which are such a prevalent, if hidden, part of our everyday lives. Today, he writes about phthalates:

However careful you are about your health, your body is almost certainly home to troubling chemicals called phthalates. These are ubiquitous in modern life, found in plastic bottles, cosmetics, some toys, hair conditioners, and fragrances — and many scientists have linked them to everything from sexual deformities in babies to obesity and diabetes.
The problem is that phthalates suppress male hormones and sometimes mimic female hormones. … They probably are not harmful to us adults, but it is another story for children. In girls, some research suggests that phthalates may cause early onset puberty. Most vulnerable of all, it seems, are male fetuses in the first trimester of pregnancy, just as they are differentiating their sex. At that stage, scholars believe, phthalates may “feminize” these boys.
“Commonly used phthalates may undervirilize humans,” concluded a study by the University of Rochester. The study, which was small, based its conclusion, in part, on measurements of “anogenital distance” — the distance between the anus and the genitals, which is typically twice as long for males as for females. Some scholars believe that shrinkage of this distance reflects “feminization” of male anatomy.

The 2005 University of Rochester study that Kristoff cites was recently named “Paper of the Year” by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives for its “high impact in both the research and legislative realms since its publication.” Indeed, the study was one of the factors behind passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which reduced the amount of certain kinds of phthalates that could be in children’s toys.

But toys aren’t our children’s only source of phthalate exposure. As Kristof writes:

Kids continue to be exposed to these chemicals from the moment they are conceived. Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network says that the way regulators examine risks — studying the impact of one chemical at a time — is bankrupt, for we’re exposed to a cocktail of them daily.

We need stronger regulation, and we need it now, argues Kristof:

Regulation is so pathetic that there’s not even disclosure when products contain phthalates. If terrorists were putting phthalates in our drinking water, we would be galvanized to defend ourselves and to spend billions of dollars to ensure our safety. But the risks are just as serious if we’re poisoning ourselves, and it’s time for the Obama administration and Congress to show leadership in this area.

What you can do
MinnPost parents (and grandparents) who want to take steps to mimimize phthalate exposure in their homes can begin by downloading the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s (IATP) “Guide to Safer Children’s Products.”

And while you’re over at the IATP website (and contemplating how you can make your home safer for the children in your life), you may also wish to read the new article it posted last week on the “10 Dangerous Household Products You Should Never Use Again.” (Note that even “pure” and “natural” air freshener products can have phthalates in them.)

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Steve Risotto on 07/18/2009 - 11:59 am.

    The Phthalate Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council is deeply troubled by Nicolas Kristof’s Op-Ed piece entitled “Chemicals and Our Health” for its misleading suggestion that phthalates are endocrine disruptors, its erroneous claim that they are present in water and baby bottles, and its complete disregard for the scientific process. Instead of providing a reasoned review of the available information, your editorial pieces together a series of suggestive findings or, in some cases, merely hypotheses to attribute many of society’s ills to phthalates.

    It is misleading to characterize phthalates as endocrine disruptors. The major phthalates in commerce today do not interfere with either the estrogen or androgen receptors when tested in laboratory animals. That is, they neither activate the male or female hormone receptors, nor prevent activation by natural hormones.

    High doses of some phthalates can suppress the production of testosterone in developing male rodents. The effect is seen in rats, but tests on monkeys while infants or still in the womb have demonstrated no effects on reproductive development at very high doses. These findings add to the evidence that higher-order animals including humans are likely more resistant to the effects of phthalates, even at the most critical times of reproductive development.

    Your editorial offers evidence of “links” to phthalates with little scrutiny of the underlying studies. Curiously, the only finding that you do critique is the study of hypospadias rates in New York State, conducted by Columbia University Medical Center, that challenges your theory. Yet you fail to mention that the rate of hypospadias also has been found not to have increased in Washington State, California, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and 20 regions of Europe. Similarly, the current body of evidence suggests that overall sperm counts have not been declining – as you assert – except perhaps in certain geographical areas.

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