Doctors and researchers know that man-made chemicals commonly found in plastics, foods, personal care products and building materials can interfere with how hormones like estrogen and testosterone work in the body.
A new study published in the journal Environmental Research now shows that pregnant women’s exposure to a particular endocrine-disrupting chemical called diethylhexyl pthalate (DEHP) is directly linked to abnormalities in newborn boys’ reproductive organs.
Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric environmental health researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute who led the study, sat down with On the Pulse to answer some questions about the findings.
Q: What did this study show about how phthalates can influence genital development in newborn boys?
This study showed a clear connection between a pregnant woman’s exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical DEHP and subsequent anomalies in a baby boy’s reproductive organs. We discovered this association by collecting urine samples from pregnant women and testing them for phthalates and doing physical exams of newborns.
While doctors and researchers have known that endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with hormones, it’s been difficult to prove clear health outcomes. Now, for the first time, we’ve shown that the higher the DEHP concentration in a mother’s urine, the more likely her boy would be born with of a genital anomaly.
Q: What complications did you identify in newborn boys?
The most common abnormality we found was hydrocele, a condition in which fluid builds up in the sac inside a boy’s scrotum. A newborn boy was more than twice as likely to develop this condition if his mother had high concentrations of DEHP in her urine.
While hydrocele is rarely a problem for boys who have it, this is significant because it is the first time that we have been able to show that exposure to an endocrine-disrupting chemical can result in changes to the reproductive system.
Q: Were there any findings about baby girls?
For this study we focused on newborn baby boys because the genital anomalies are easier to identify and record. More research is needed to understand how endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be impacting fetal development of females.
Q: Should pregnant women avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals?
Yes. Pregnant women and families can take easy, common sense steps to reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These chemicals, called phthalates, are most commonly found in plastics, personal care products like shampoos, makeup and perfumes, and in the U.S. food supply from things like jars, packaging, and other storage.
Tips to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals
- Buy low-fat dairy products like skim milk and low fat cheeses instead of high fat dairy products like cream and whole milk.
- Buy fresh or frozen fruits whenever possible, and avoid canned and processed foods.
- Look for items that are labeled phthalate or BPA-free.
- Minimize personal care products, and focus on simple products with clear ingredients.
- Use glass, stainless steel, ceramic or wood to hold and store foods instead of plastics, and do not microwave food in plastic.
- Do not heat a baby’s milk or food in plastics or put hot liquids in plastic products such as sippy cups.
- Check plastic symbols and avoid plastics known to contain these chemicals including numbers 3 (PVC and vinyl), 6 (polystyrene foam) and 7 (other, can contain BPA).
- Encourage frequent handwashing.
- Minimize handling of receipts.
- Take shoes off at home to avoid tracking dust in that may contain these chemicals.
- Keep carpets and windowsills clean because these products may contain these chemicals.
For more information on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units at the University of Washington offers a fact sheet with additional information and tips.