Phthalate Exposure In Utero Linked to Male Reproductive Issues, Study Finds

In utero exposure to phthalates, chemicals common in certain types of plastics, product packaging and personal care items, can be significantly damaging to male genital development, new research finds.

The study found that exposure to phthalates increased the risk of issues with the development of the male reproductive tract.

Researchers looked at the levels in pregnant women of 11 chemical compounds formed in the body when phthalates are broken down. According to Live Science, the researchers found that “newborn boys who were exposed in the womb to the highest levels of one phthalate, called diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), had an ‘anogenital distance’ that was 4 percent shorter than that of the boys born to women with the lowest levels.”

Anogenital distance is an indicator of reproductive health. It’s the length between the anus and the genitals. In healthy males, it’s 50 to 100 percent longer than in females. The shorter the anogenital distance, the more likely an incomplete masculinization occurred.

“It's unclear whether the slight alterations seen in the babies in the study could be permanent, or could result in any reproductive health issues,” LiveScience reports, but animal studies suggest that “a shortened anogenital distance at birth may signal reproductive abnormalities later in life, and previous studies in humans have linked shorter anogenital distance with testicular abnormalities and semen problems in men.”

While DEHP and two other phthalates are banned in certain children's toys and products, they are not banned from food-processing and packaging materials or other products pregnant women may frequently come in contact with.

But there’s good news from the research too. “Although DEHP is still found in the bodies of most Americans, people's levels of the chemical have decreased over the past decade, Live Science reports. “The levels of DEHP seen in the pregnant women in this newest study, which were measured from urine samples collected between 2010 and 2012, were about 50 percent lower than the levels in urine from mothers obtained in a previous study, between 2000 and 2002.”

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