Flame retardant linked to cryptorchidism in newborn boys

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By Jimmy Downs

Thursday Nov 29, 2012 (foodconsumer.org) -- Prenatal flame retardant exposure may increase risk of congenital  cryptorchidism in newborn boys, according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives.  Cryptorchidism refers to a male abnormal reproductive condition in which males have undescended testes.

Flame retardant s like  polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) can be used in any household products that may otherwise catch fire including CD/DVD cases, computers, furniture like counches, carpets, toys, TV and many products made of plastics. They can also be used in baby products such as car seats, nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers, and bassinet mattresses.  

The study led by Katharina Main at University Department of Growth and Reproduction in Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark and colleagues showed the concentration of flame retardant compounds in breast milk was significantly higher in boys with cryptorchidism than in controls without the condition.

According to the researchers, use of the flame retardant had been widely used in Western countries and the prevalence of cryptorchidism appeared to be on the rise, which prompted them to conduct the study to determine if one type of flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is associated with testicular maldescent.

For the study,  all boys in a prospective Danish-Finnish study between 1997 and 2001 were examined for cryptorchidism.  Whole placentas for 95 cryptorchid boys and 185 healthy boys, and breast milk samples from nursing mothers were analysed for 14 PBDEs congeners. Analysed also were serum samples from infants for gonadotropins, sex-hormone binding globulin, inhibin B and testosterone.

Overall, flame retardant concentrations in placentas were lower than in breast milk and many congeners were undetectable.  Neither individual flame retardant compound nor the sum  of five most common compounds or all 14 were not associated with cryptorchidism.

However, boys with cryptorchidism were found to use breast milk with significantly higher concentrations of PBDEs compared to breast milk used by healthy boys. 

Additionally, the sum of flame retardants were found significantly associated with serum luteinizing hormone, which is normally low in boys.  

In males, luteinizing hormone which had also been called interstitial cell-stimulating hormone function to stimulate Leydig cell production of testosterone.  High levels of luteinizing hormone can also be caused by conditions like gonadal dysgenesis, castration, and testicular failure.

The researchers concluded "levels in breast milk, but not in placenta, showed an association with congenital cryptorchidism. Other environmental factors may contribute to cryptorchidism. Our observations are of concern because human exposure to PBDEs is high in some geographic areas."

PBDEs are flame retardants currently used to replace old generation flame retardants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which have been banned because of their toxicity.  However, PBDEs are similar in terms of their chemistry and may not be much safer than PCBs.  Some currently used flame retardant compounds have been banned in Europe.

Cryptorchidism is not the only medical condition that can be caused by flame retardants.  The pollutants can also increase risk of a range of diseases including diabetes mellitus, altered gene expression, reduced fertility, slowed fetal growth and ADHD, thyroid disease, colon cancer, and low IQ.

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