A group of scientists from universities and medical research centers says it has produced one of the largest studies linking phthalate exposure to altered genitals in infant boys.
The study, published in the journal Human Reproduction, found exposure to even low levels of diethylhexyl phthalate — a prominent plastic softener — during the first trimester of pregnancy could result in disrupted genital development in boys.
The exposure could result in “reproductive tract changes that may impact reproductive health later in life,” including low sperm count and infertility.
“We saw these changes even though moms' exposure to DEHP has dropped 50 percent in the past 10 years,” said Shanna Swan, the report’s lead researcher and a professor at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The connection between the compound and the altered development had been established in multiple animal studies, but human studies had previously been “limited by small sample size and imprecise timing of exposure and/or outcome.” A 2005 study linked phthalate to development of smaller genitals among prenatal males.
The analysis, funded by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, reflected urine samples from pregnant women at clinics in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and Rochester, New York, who then delivered 787 infants. Of those, 753 infants with complete data were included in the study. The analysis did not show a similar effect by DHEP exposure on infant girls.
DEHP is included in products such as tubing, flooring and personal care products, but researchers said the most common exposure occurs from eating food that has picked up the chemical.
The American Chemistry Council responded that phthalates are “one of the most widely studied family of chemicals” and that DEHP breaks down within minutes of entering the body — reflected by an “extremely low” rate of exposure despite its prevalence in the marketplace.