RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Pregnant women exposed in the workplace to hairspray and chemicals classified as phthalates have a two- to threefold greater chance of giving birth to baby boys with genital birth defects, according to a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Phthalates are chemicals used in many synthetic fragrances and personal-care products and are sometimes added to help makeup and lotion stick to your skin longer. They also make plastic products more flexible.
THE DETAILS: Researchers surveyed mothers of about 470 boys born with hypospadias, a condition in which the urethra opens on the underside of the penis instead of the tip, questioning them about their diet, folate supplementation during the first trimester, and exposure to certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals on the job. Hairspray was of particular interest, since a 2003 study suggested a connection to birth defects. A comparison with 490 mothers of boys born without the defect showed that exposure to phthalates yielded more than double the risk of giving birth to boys with the condition. Women at a higher risk worked in hair salons or as research chemists, line operators, pharmaceutical operators, electrical assemblers, or factory assistants. Taking folate supplements in the first trimester helped mitigate the risk.
WHAT IT MEANS: Phthalates are found in many products, including hairspray, deodorants, cosmetics, cleaners, plastic toys, vinyl flooring and shower curtains, aftershave, cologne and perfume, and moisturizers. Although this study looked at exposure levels at work, there’s a chance you’re absorbing phthalates on a daily basis from personal-care products, too. “As general advice, many women may think it prudent to reduce as far as possible their exposure to chemicals in the first three months of pregnancy,” says study coauthor Paul Elliott, professor and chair, department of epidemiology and public health at Imperial College in London.
If you’re pregnant, here are some ways to cut back on your exposure to phthalates: