Infertile couples have higher exposure to phthalates.

Feb 22, 2012

Tranfo, G, L Caporossi, E Paci, C Aragona, D Romanzi, C De Carolis, M De Rosa, S Capanna, B Papaleo and A Pera. 2012. Urinary phthalate monoesters concentration in couples with infertility problems. Toxicology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.toxlet.2011.11.033.

Synopsis by Renee Gardner

Scientists studying infertile couples in Italy report that these couples have higher exposures to phthalates widely used in plastics and cosmetics compared to fertile couples.

Infertile couples are exposed to three to five times higher levels of phthalates compared to fertile couples who have naturally conceived a child, finds a study from Italy. The couples had higher levels of four different classes of phthalates in their urine, including the phthalate compound most commonly used in plastics and the compound most commonly used in cosmetics.

Phthalates can act as endocrine disrupting chemicals, mimicking or interfering with the actions of natural hormones like estrogen. Prior research shows phthalates can cause problems such as pregnancy loss and reduced litter size in rodents, though animals in these studies were exposed to levels about 100 times greater than the general population.

Phthalates are used to make vinyl plastics softer and more flexible. Di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) is the most commonly used plasticizer. This compound can be transferred to food from plastic food packaging. Adults are exposed to phthalates primarily through diet.

Other phthalates are also found in certain personal care products, such as fingernail polish, perfumes and cosmetics. Diethylphthalate (DEP) – the most frequently used phthalate in cosmetics – is found in toiletries such as soap, shampoo, and conditioners. They can be absorbed through the skin.

Because of their wide use, exposure to phthalates is pervasive in the general population.

Phthalate exposure is associated with lower sperm concentration and decreased sperm motility in men’s semen, as well as with decreased blood levels of important hormones in men. One recent study showed that phthalate exposure in women during the month of conception was linked with an increased risk of early miscarriage.

In this study, 56 couples who sought help to conceive a child from an assisted reproduction center in Italy, and 56 couples who conceived at least one child naturally, donated urine samples that were analyzed for phthalate concentrations. Couples who were infertile due to physical abnormalities or past surgeries were not included in the study.

The scientists measured the levels of four different phthalates and their breakdown products in the urine of all of the participating couples. Phthalate levels from the infertile couples were compared to levels from the fertile couples.

Levels of all four phthalates and their breakdown products were significantly higher in both infertile men and women compared to the fertile men and women. In the case of the breakdown product of DEP, the levels were about five times higher in infertile women and about three times higher in infertile men compared to their fertile counterparts. Levels of the breakdown product of DEHP were one third higher in infertile couples compared to fertile couples.

Further work is necessary to determine whether phthalate exposure can be linked to specific causes of infertility. The authors' next step will be to compare these results with the couples' "life styles and working conditions collected through a specifically designed questionnaire."

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