A new study strengthens the case for health risks associated with a common household chemical found in plastic products and packaging. The study finds that when a male fetus is exposed to the chemical, DEHP, a type of phthalate, during the first trimester of gestation, his anogenital distance is altered in a way that has been linked to male infertility and low sperm count. The greatest avenue of exposure to DEHP comes in the national food supply but it’s also present in personal care products, lacquers, flooring, and wallpaper. Plastic medical tubing is another source of exposure to phthalates.

The distance between a man’s anus and genitals (the anogenital distance, or AGD) is a measure of fertility. Previous studies link a shorter than average AGD to low sperm count and male infertility.

Shanna Swan led a recent study that measured the level of phthalates in women’s urine during the first trimester of pregnancy and again at or shortly after giving birth. The research team then measured the AGD of the 800 children born to the women participating in the study.

Swan, who is professor of preventive medicine and obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and her research team discovered that male children born to the mothers with highest levels of phthalates in their urine during the first trimester had significantly shorter AGDs than male children born to mothers with lower exposure levels. There were no AGD differences noted in the female babies.

According to Swan, “We saw these changes even though moms’ exposure to DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate) has dropped 50 percent in the past 10 years.” She further states, “Therefore, we have not found a safe level of phthalate exposure for pregnant women.”

“Food is the largest source of DEHP for consumers,” according to Swan, who suggests eating as many unprocessed foods as possible. She adds that “eliminating DEHP from food really has to be done by food producers.” The chemical is found in plastic food and beverage packaging and the storage containers most American families have on hand to store leftovers and lunches.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) takes issue with Swan’s study, saying it examined only DEHP, not the entire family of phthalates. The council says phthalates are “one of the most widely studied family of chemicals in use today” and that data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates exposure to phthalates has dropped over the previous decade to levels even lower than some regulatory agencies consider safe.

Dr. Kenneth Spaeth disagrees with the ACC statement. Spaeth, director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, said, “virtually everyone in the US experiences continual exposure to phthalates” and this continuous exposure may not be benign.


  1. Reinberg, Steven. "Chemical in plastics may affect boys' future fertility." CBSNews. CBS Interactive Inc., 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
  2. Swan, S. H., et al. "First trimester phthalate exposure and anogenital distance in newborns." Human Reproduction. European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, 18 Feb. 2015. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.


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