Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that humans carry phthalates—chemicals used as softeners in plastics and found in everything from pill coatings to nail polish—around in their bodies. A growing number of studies, primarily in rats, show that phthalates cause male reproductive problems—infertility, decreased sperm count, malformation—and can cross the placenta. As a result, the European Union has banned some of them and consumer advocate and environmental groups have called for the U.S. government to do the same.

Today, an advisory panel of scientists, commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), released a report recommending that the chemicals be assessed as a group for potential risks as soon as possible.

"Our committee concluded that there are common adverse outcomes," said Deborah Cory-Slechta, a specialist in environmental medicine at the University of Rochester during a press teleconference. "There should be a cumulative risk assessment and it should be broadened to all phthalates and anti-androgens [chemicals that block or eliminate male hormones]."

There have been  only a few, small studies  of phthalate levels in pregnant women and the health of their offspring. But toxicologist Paul Foster of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Raleigh, N.C.  said that pregnant humans, rats and all mammals share enough similarities (in gender development in the womb) to suspect that if phthalates produce  ill effects in rats they will do the same in humans.

"There is evidence that the levels of phthalates in [human] amniotic fluid are in the range of levels in rat amniotic fluid that gives rise to adverse effects in offspring,"  toxicologist Andreas Kortenkamp of the University of London said during the call.

Industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, argue that there is not enough evidence that phthalates cause harm to justify a risk assessment, a charge that the committee dismisses based on the accumulating animal data. Now it's just a matter of when.

"EPA clearly believes it is of interest to move ahead," Cory-Slechta said. "Where it fits within their priorities and timeframe we cannot address but it's certainly on their radar screen."

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