Sweet smell of death

Chemicals from cosmetics, adhesives and plastics can disrupt hormone function and cause birth defects

Published: Tuesday 31 October 2000

us scientists say that humans absorb high chemicals used in everyday products as fingernail polish -- some, particularly in young women, at levels that raise questions about possible health effects. These chemicals called phthalates. Experiments conducted on animals studies suggest large amounts of certain phthalates may disrupt normal hormone function and cause birth defects.

These chemicals are found in numerous products: plastic toys, medical equipment, food packaging, cosmetics, varnishes, adhesives. But it remains uncertain as to how much people absorb such chemicals.

When researchers at the us -based Centre for Disease Control and Prevention tested urine from 289 adults, they were in for a surprise: the most common phthalates -- ones environmentalists have argued make toys and medical equipment dangerous -- float in people's bodies only at low levels. But the body levels of three chemicals used in cosmetics and solvents were higher than anticipated.

Those found at the highest levels are diethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate and benzylbutyl phthalate. "We were surprised to find high exposures among women of childbearing age. That's not where you want to have them, when dealing with compounds that cause birth defects," says expert Paul Foster of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology.

The question is whether repeated exposure might be harmful, something the government is studying. The study doesn't "talk about any health effects at all," cautioned Brock, whose data was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives . "It would be premature for people to assume this means anything other than we are exposed to these compounds."

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