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Chemicals and Our Health

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. As I've written before, chemicals called endocrine disruptors are believed to explain the proliferation of "intersex fish" - male fish that produce eggs - as well as sexual deformities in animals and humans. Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are among the most common endocrine disruptors, and among the most difficult to avoid. They're even in tap water, and levels soar in certain plastic water bottles.

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 researchers found that pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates delivered babies with a shorter anogenital distance. It's possible this won't cause any complications. But baby boys with shorter anogenital distance were more likely to have undescended testicles and less penile volume, and phthalates have been linked in humans to problems with sperm count and sperm quality.

In China, researchers found that female rats given phthalates gave birth to males with a penis deformity called hypospadias (in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis, not the tip). Many other animal studies around the world have found similar results.

Some endocrinologists refer to the "phthalate syndrome," including hypospadias and undescended testicles.

"Accumulating human epidemiological data point to a relationship between adverse fetal development and phthalate exposure," concluded an article this spring in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. Just last month, the Endocrine Society - composed of thousands of doctors in the field - issued a powerful warning that endocrine disruptors including phthalates are "a significant concern to public health."

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