Stories tagged phthalate

Nov
16
2009

He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)
He looks happy, but it's a facade: He's very worried about phthalates, BPAs, and his manliness. (Good thing that's a glass bottle.)Courtesy sirgabe
There’s something I want to get out of the way straight off the bat: the original title for this post was “Monday Nutrition Extravaganza: Chemicals in your food, playing with your manhood!” And while that has a certain whimsical charm, a re-read revealed hidden, disturbing meaning in those words. And I didn’t want to subject you Buzzketeers to that. I just thought you should know.

So, moving on, what’s this stuff playing with our manhood, now?

Chemicalz in our foodz! And stuff.

Earlier today, I came across this study about how there seems to be a correlation between high levels of chemicals call phthalates in pregnant mothers’ urine, and a lowered incidence of “masculine play” in their male children. (“Girls’ play behavior” didn’t seem to be affected.)

Interesting, interesting.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals added to plastics to make them softer and more pliable. We all like soft plastic—no one is arguing that!—but phthalates are all over the place, and increased exposure to them (all sorts of products and packaging use phthalates) is raising concerns about how those chemicals affect us, particularly during childhood development. See, phthalates are antiandrogens, meaning that they mess with the way your body works with hormones like testosterone. Testosterone plays an important role in how we physically develop, and perhaps in how we act. The boys whose mothers had higher levels of a couple kinds of phthalates demonstrated less “male-typical” behavior. The study looked a preferred toy types (trucks versus dolls), activities (“rough-and-tumble play”), and “child characteristics.”

Now, these are slightly sticky things to go judging kids on. Some folks might argue that these characteristics aren’t linked to biology so much as social conditioning. And it feels a little weird quantifying characteristics in children (and, let’s be honest here, characteristics which may not have a solidly identified “norm,” but nonetheless have all sorts of social and sexual baggage that we are uncomfortable with and often deal with in the worst ways). However, there does seem to be some statistical association here, whatever the causal relationship is. One hypothesis is that phthalates alter fetal production of testosterone at an important period of development, affecting “brain sexual differentiation.” It’s not so hard to imagine—a year ago I did a post on how certain common chemicals in pregnant mothers seemed to be causing penis deformities in their male children. The culprit there? Phthalates. The women in that story, however, had had exceptionally high exposure to phthalates (their jobs had them in constant contact with phthalate-containing hairspray), so it’s probably not something to lose sleep over, but it’s worth knowing.

And while phthalates aren’t supposed to be in food packaging, the next article I came across (this is an extravaganza, after all) deals with another plastic additive, BPA, that is found in food packaging, and which may also cause some hormone-related havoc.

BPA has come up on Science Buzz before. It’s in all sorts of packaging and bottles (it’s the reason your over protective mother doesn’t want you to use nalgene bottles) and it may affect tissue development, potentially increasing cancer risks.

We don’t care about that, though, right? Sure, cancer is out there, but in the future, not right now, you know? I know. But BPA’s latest appearance in the news may bring some immediacy to the concern over its use. Concern for some people. For men, I mean.

Chemical BPA in workers related to sex problems, says the Washington Post. “Sex problems”? We don’t want those! Chinese men working in a factory that uses BPA were found to have high rates of sexual problems. (I won’t be defining what “sexual problems” are because whatever you just imagined was probably correct.) Now, these guys have BPA levels about 50 times higher than the average American. But, still, something like 90% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Again, probably nothing to lose a lot of sleep over, but something worth knowing about. This professor is of the opinion that BPAs should be banned, even though most of us will probably never be exposed to dangerous levels of it, because a) it’s not a natural part of our diet; b) it’s not actually necessary in plastics processing; c) it accumulates in the body, and we still don’t know what level at which it begins to become harmful (ask those Chinese guys); and d) it’d be relatively easy to get it out of the food and water supply, unlike some other potentially harmful chemicals.

Accepting that scientific studies are necessarily very focused to eliminate variables, both of these stories still left me wondering what affect phthalates and BPAs have on women and girls. On one hand, one tries to avoid the mindset that average human physiology=male physiology, but on the other hand it’s usually just males that have penises, making their medical problems a little more hilarious.

There are so many… things out there, and they’re all doing… stuff! Interesting to know.