Plastics linked to cancer and genital abnormalities

In a double blow this week scientists have linked chemicals commonly found in consumer plastics to genital abnormalities in baby boys and breast cancer.

A family of chemicals known as phthalates, which are widely used to make plastics more flexible and can be found in food wrappers, cosmetics and electrical equipment have been shown by a team of American scientists to affect the normal gender development in baby boys.

Publishing their research in Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of United States’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Shanna H Swan and colleagues demonstrated a clear correlation between the level of exposure during pregnancy and the likelihood of male children displaying androgynous traits.

While a wealth of research has been carried out on animals, this was the first human study linking mothers exposure to phthalates to problems with their sons’ reproductive system.

Boys whose mothers had the highest exposure to phthalate were found to be more likely to have smaller penises and lower sperm counts and less likely to have full testicular descent.

They also tended to have a shorter perineum, the area between the genitals and anus, which is normally twice as long in males as it is in females.

Phthalates have also been linked to premature breast development in girls.

Meanwhile, another compound found in plastic food containers, can linings, babies bottles and other household products has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.

The effects of bisphenol-A, or BPA, on breast development were studied by a team from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Reporting their findings in the Endocrinology journal the scientists described how exposing mice to BPA had significantly altered mammary gland development.

The mice were found to have a dramatic increase in both numbers and density of terminal end buds, the part of the breast where tumours begin.

They also had less cells programmed for death, the mechanism that allows the body to shut down damaged matter that might develop cancer.

Environmental campaigners have reacted to the double-dose of bad news by calling for tighter legislation to protect the public and wildlife from harmful chemicals used by industry.

The London-based Women’s Environment Network (WEN) have said information published in Swan’s report comes as little surprise to anyone.

“It gives us no pleasure to say ‘We told you so’ but health and environmental campaigners have long warned that phthalates threaten fertility,” said WEN’s health coordinator Helen Lynn.

“The EU has banned six phthalates from children’s soft toys and two, DEHP and DBP, from use in cosmetics but others are still widely used in cosmetics and toiletries, as well as plastics.

“Companies have not agreed to remove DEP the phthalate most commonly used in cosmetics, and one of the phthalates linked to birth defects in the new human baby study.

“Product tests conducted for our report, Pretty Nasty, in 2002 found DEP in 68 percent of personal care products tested including deodorant, hair care products and all the perfumes tested.

“WEN calls on cosmetics companies to remove phthalates from all their products and the EU to extend the current bans to cover the whole family of these chemicals.”

By Sam Bond

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie