There are pictures of pregnant women smoking on cigarette packages. The label says “Warning: Cigarettes Hurt Babies.”
Waddle up to a bar, and you’ll see a similar message on a poster by the women’s washroom. It declares alcohol “can cause birth defects and brain damage in your baby.”
There should be similar warnings on many bottles of shampoo, moisturizers, shower curtains, packages of cheese and plastic Tupperware. The disclaimer should say: includes gender-bending chemicals harmful to fetuses. Risks include: reduced testosterone, undescended testicles, smaller penises and less masculine behaviour in boys.
Two studies this week raised the alarm – again – about the experiments we are unwittingly conducting on our kids before they are born.
Both involved a group of unpronounceable chemicals called phthalates. They are commonly used as plasticizers – softening brittle plastics such as vinyl so it can be bent into rubber duckies or tubing. They’re also added to many lotions, shampoos, perfumes and nail polishes because they retain fragrances and help lotions to penetrate the skin.
No question they’re inside of you. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected three of them in almost all of the more than 2,500 people they tested. We bathe in them every day. We breathe them in and we eat them. Scientists say our greatest exposure comes from processed food.
This might not be a big deal for adults. But it’s a huge concern for children and pregnant women. That’s because phthalates block testosterone production, particularly in a developing fetus.
The result, in rodents, is called “phthalate syndrome” – undescended testicles, smaller penises and deformed penises with urethras exiting from the side or base, rather than the top.
Four years ago, University of Rochester obstetrics and gynecology professor Dr. Shanna Swan discovered humans could get phthalate syndrome, too.
First, she tested the urine samples of hundreds of pregnant women in California, Minnesota and Missouri. Then, after they had given birth, pediatricians conducted standardized genital exams of their sons.
The results showed that boys born to women with greater levels of two particular phthalates – DEHP and DBP – were more likely to have “incompletely masculinized genitalia” – smaller penises and scrotums, and undescended testicles.
This week, Swan published her follow-up study. It reveals phthalate syndrome affects baby boys’ brains, too. Looking at many of the same children, she found boys who had been exposed to higher levels of DEHP and DBP in utero were less likely to engage in “male-typical play behaviour.” They were less into trucks, balls and roughhousing.
“The brain is the largest sex organ in the body,” Swan said in an interview. “It also is developed under the influence of testosterone.”
The second study was by the Washington Toxics Coalition, a non-profit group in Seattle. It tested nine pregnant women for a host of toxic chemicals.
Two of the women had made great efforts to reduce their phthalate exposure – using only fragrance-free, organic shampoos and lotions. It didn’t make a difference. Their urine was still brimming with the stuff.
“There is no way you can shop your way out of this problem,” says Erika Schreder, who conducted the study. “If we are going to reduce exposure to our most vulnerable people – fetuses in the womb – we need to have policy action to get these chemicals out of products.”
Last summer, the Canadian Health Ministry banned six phthalates from children’s toys. But that’s like sending in a goalie halfway through the game. We need to protect our babies when their organs are being formed.
I called the federal health ministry. I was told federal scientists studying the issue won’t release results until 2010-11.
At the very least, we need to slap labels on these products. Warning stickers might be the incentive companies need to develop toxin-free formulations. And they’d allow us to exclude unborn babies from this chemistry experiment.
The provincial government can require companies to do that. It gave itself that power this summer in the Ontario Toxics Reduction Act.
“These new authorities would position the government to take action to protect Ontarians,” the ministry fact sheet states, “if necessary.”
I think it is necessary. I emailed Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen to tell him so. You should, too. His address is email@example.com.