Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Can chemicals in our home cause deformities?

Growing numbers of boys are being born with malformed genitals. This condition is called hypospadias - a birth abnormality where the hole in the penis lies underneath the shaft, or in more severe cases, at the base of the penis or underneath the scrotum. In some cases the penis is very bent and will grow back on itself, in the shape of a doughnut. In severe cases, it is difficult to identify a penis at all. At best the problem is largely cosmetic and can be rectified in a single operation.

At worst boys are left infertile and unable to have sex. Of every 150 to
200 boys born in the UK, one will have hypospadias - and doctors believe
that cases have doubled over the past 25 years. It happens during the
first three or four months of pregnancy and is a result of incomplete
masculinisation. During the development of babies with hypospadias,
something disrupts the hormonal changes a foetus goes through to become

Research in Denmark points to a group of chemicals - phthalates -
found in objects such as plastic, carpets, fabric, make-up, food
packaging, perfume, cosmetics, milk, vegetables, pesticides and sun
cream. They are known as endocrine disrupters and are believed to upset
the balance of hormones during the early stages of pregnancy. Professor
Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive
Sciences Unit suggests that there’s a link between incidents of
hypospadias, undescended testes, low sperm-count and testicular cancers.
“We don’t yet know the exact cause of these problems, but they are all
inter-related. It seems that the increase in these abnormalities is to
do with environmental and lifestyle factors. It is something that has
only happened recently,” Sharpe says.

Aivar Bracka, a consultant genito-urethral plastic surgeon at Russells
Hall Hospital in Dudley, operates on hundreds of cases of hypospadias
every year and says that he would be surprised if there was not an
environment cause for the condition. “In particular, it explains cases
of identical twins where one is born with hypospadias and the other
isn’t. This means that genetics doesn’t account for everything.”

Although hereditary factors do, however, play a part in some cases. It
is not unusual for more than one male in a family to have hypospadias.
Studies have shown that boys with hypospadias tend to have a slightly
lower sperm-count and 1 in 10 boys are also born with undescended
testicles. If one testicle descends there is, again, a small but
significant increase of infertility.

If both fail to descend, that likelihood shoots up to 80 per cent.
The European Parliament will be
finalising legislation this autumn on the use of toxic chemicals in
household products. Greenpeace wants to see the use of phthalates, a
group of chemicals that may be responsible for disrupting hormones
during pregnancy, restricted and safer ones used. It also wants the
chemical content of products to be clearly stated on labels so that
consumers know what to avoid. Even if Greenpeace succeed in their bid,
it is unclear whether the rise in conditions such as hypospadias can be
reversed. But it does seem clear that some lifestyle and environmental
factors must be addressed.
The Independent News, 12 September 2006

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