New research regarding phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), a known hormone disruptor found in hundreds of plasticized consumer products, adds to the growing scientific consensus of the public health danger they pose.
Analyzing data collected from 362 women, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that in pregnant women higher levels of the hormone hCG, which is targeted by phthalates, was correlated with an abnormality in anogenital distance in male babies. The higher the hCG in the mother's blood, the shorter the distance between the anus and the scrotum in the male infants. Short anogenital distance is also strongly associated with lower sperm count in males.
"Our study is the first to show that hCG is a target of phthalate exposure in early pregnancy and to confirm previous findings that it is a critical hormone in male development," epidemiologist Jennifer Adibi told the Endocrine Society Thursday at its annual meeting in San Diego.
Phthalates made big news in 2008 when the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that infants exposed to infant-care products, specifically baby shampoos, baby lotions, and baby powder, showed higher than normal levels of phthalates in their urine. Because they are known to disrupt hormones, several of them were severely restricted by Congress in children's toys and certain child-care articles.
Nonetheless, various kinds of phthalates, which make plastic durable but flexible, are found in everything from raincoats to nail polish to vinyl flooring.
Last year at least three major studies raised concerns about the ubiquity of phthalates. In July, in the journal Environmental Health, scientists reported that infants with normal diets, especially diets high in whole milk, cream and poultry, consume double the amount of phthalates the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. Phthalates are known to migrate into food in a variety of ways, including through plastic food-packaging, gloves used in the preparation of food, conveyor belts that carry food during the packaging process and through the tubing used to milk cows. Phthalates are also used in some printing inks and adhesive labels found on many food wrappers.
In November of 2014, scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health reported that because of phthalates in intravenous tubing, blood and fluid bags, premature babies can be exposed to 4,000 to 160,000 times the amount of phthalates considered safe.
And in December, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health linked prenatal exposure to phthalates to a more than six-point drop in IQ score compared with kids with less exposure.
In another study whose findings were presented at Thursday's Endocrine Society meeting, Canadian researchers found that phthalates in household plastic product as well as in the flame retardant coating on most furniture foam cushions, is associated with increased risk of autism. Rats exposed to phthalates showed behaviors similar to those seen in humans with autism spectrum disorders, including reduced social interactions and increased hyperactive movements. In general, male rats were more affected than females and demonstrated less maternal bonding than females.
Under the law, the Federal Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over cosmetic products and ingredients, including phthalates (with the exception of color additives), before they are sold to the public, and on its Web site the FDA says that it "does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk."
Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Human health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown. Some types of phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. More research is needed to assess the human health effects . . . "