November is for the Boys: Maternal Phthalate Exposure and Male Fetal Health


Article Author: Kira Levenson, Biochemistry Major, Class of 2022, Protect Our Breasts Science Translator

Plastics chemicals surround us, from the packaging of our food to the ingredients used in our personal care products. They integrate seamlessly into our everyday lives, but a growing body of research indicates their health risks, particularly to pregnant mothers and their offspring.

Plastics are known to contain a number of chemicals, many of which are known to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs interfere with the endocrine system, which manages the body’s hormones and growth responses, among other things. Exposure to endocrine disruptors is especially potent during key developmental stages such as puberty and during pregnancy.  

Many plastics contain a class of synthetic EDCs known as phthalates, which are used as plasticizers to make the plastics more flexible and less brittle. Phthalates readily leach out of packaging and into products, making their way into the human body and negatively affecting our health. Phthalates are notably problematic because they are able to cross the placenta and affect fetal development, often with lasting effects.

One new review paper from August 2020 consolidates “an overview of the maternal exposure to phthalates and its endocrine impairments on women and offspring,” (Qian et. al, 20) synthesizing a number of phthalate exposure studies. The results firmly establish links between maternal exposure and fetal health, particularly for a male’s reproductive development. 

Key outcomes: 

  • Exposure to phthalates is linked to “…infant hypospadias, infant cryptorchidism, or shorter anogenital distance in newborns” (Qian et. al, 2020).
    • Hypospadias is a condition in which the urethra’s external position is abnormal.
    • Cryptorchidism is a condition in which one or both testes may fail to descend from the abdomen to the scrotum. 
    • Anogenital distance refers to the measured distance between the anus and genitalia. It is a marker of prenatal exposure to the hormone androgen, a hormone associated with male traits and reproductive development.

This study notes that phthalate exposure may also affect children into adolescence, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of phthalate exposure. It also emphasizes the link between the time of exposure to phthalates and the effects of phthalates on health, noting the heightened effects of prenatal exposures on prenatal development and other health issues.

The field of phthalate research is vast and new findings are regularly being published, with a majority supporting the connections between phthalate exposure and harm to health. Although the paper focuses on the direct effects of phthalate-containing plastics on the health of mothers and children, these chemicals can also be found in a wide variety of consumer products, including personal care products, which ultimately affect each and every one of us. 

Every small choice we make to decrease our exposure to chemicals of concern, such as phthalates, the greater we are able to protect ourselves and future generations to come.


Qian, et. al. 2020. The Endocrine Disruption of Prenatal Phthalate Exposure in Mother and Offspring. Frontier Public Health. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2020.00366.

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