Hairspray is linked to common genital birth defect, says study

Hairspray is linked to common genital birth defect, says study

New research says that women exposed to hairspray in the workplace during pregnancy have more than double the risk of having a son with hypospadias <em> - News Release </em>

For immediate release
Friday 21 November 2008

Women who are exposed to hairspray in the workplace during pregnancy have more than double the risk of having a son with the genital birth defect hypospadias, according to a new study published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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The study is the first to show a significant link between hairspray and hypospadias, one of the most common birth defects of the male genitalia, where the urinary opening is displaced to the underside of the penis. The causes of the condition are poorly understood.

Women have a two to three-fold increased risk of having a son with hypospadias if they are exposed to hairspray in the workplace in their first trimester of pregnancy, according to the new study, by researchers from Imperial College London, University College Cork and the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona.

The study suggests that hairspray and hypospadias may be linked because of chemicals in hairspray known as phthalates. Previous studies have proposed that phthalates may disrupt the hormonal systems in the body and affect reproductive development.

Hairspray and hypospadias may be linked because of chemicals in hairspray known as phthalates.

In Europe, certain phthalates have been banned from hairsprays and other cosmetic products since January 2005. The women who took part in the study gave birth in 1997 and 1998 and they were interviewed between 2000 and 2003.*

It is thought that hypospadias affects around 1 in 250 boys in the UK and in the USA, although estimates about prevalence vary. Usually, hypospadias can be successfully treated with corrective surgery after a boy reaches his first birthday, but more severe cases can lead to problems with urinating, sexual relations and fertility.

The new research also reveals that taking folic acid supplements in the first three months of pregnancy is associated with a 36 percent reduced risk of bearing a child with the condition. The UK Department of Health already recommends that folic acid supplements are taken up until the twelfth week of pregnancy in order to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.

Previous smaller studies had suggested that hypospadias might be linked to vegetarianism but the new study did not show any increased risk in women who had a vegetarian diet during pregnancy.

Professor Paul Elliott, the corresponding author of the research from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Imperial College London, said: "Hypospadias is a condition that, if left untreated, can cause problems in later life. Although surgery to correct it is usually successful, any surgery will be traumatic for the child and his parents. It is encouraging that our study showed that taking folic acid supplements in pregnancy may reduce the risk of a child being born with the condition. Further research is needed to understand better why women exposed to hairspray at work in the first 3 months of pregnancy may have increased risk of giving birth to a boy with hypospadias."

The researchers reached their conclusions after conducting detailed telephone interviews with 471 mothers whose sons had been referred to surgeons for hypospadias and 490 controls, across 120 London Boroughs and Local Authority Districts.

The questionnaires explored a range of aspects of the women's health and lifestyle, including the mother’s occupation and possible exposure to different chemical substances, family history of disease, maternal occupation, vegetarianism, smoking and use of folate supplements.

The study was funded by a grant from the UK Health and Safety Executive, the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment, Transport and The Regions and the European Chemical Industry Council.

* This paragraph was added to the press release at 17.00 on Friday 21 November 2008


For further information please contact:

Laura Gallagher
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Telephone: +44 (0)207 594 8432 or ext. 48432
Out of hours duty Press Officer: +44 (0)7803 886 248

Notes to editors:

1. "Endocrine Disruptors in the Workplace, Hair Spray, Folate Supplementation, and Risk of Hypospadias: Case-control Study," Environmental Health Perspectives, published online 21 November 2008

2. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

3. About CREAL

CREAL is a joint initiative together with the Municipal Institute of Medical Research (IMIM-Hospital del Mar), Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and the Generalitat of Catalonia. Despite its recent creation in 2005, this centre has inherited a line of environmental epidemiological research initially promoted by the IMIM Respiratory and Environmental Health Research Unit (URRA). Thus, its research staff has extensive experience in information systems research and advising, environmental risk assessment and crisis management, as well as in environmental epidemiology methods training and knowledge management. Director: Josep Maria Antó.

4. About University College Cork

University College Cork is situated in south-west Ireland and was founded as a Queen's College in 1845. The university has 16,000 full-time students. 13,000 are undergraduate students while 3,000 are on postgraduate programmes. UCC’s diverse student-body includes 2,000 international students representing 80-plus countries worldwide. In addition, the university’s Centre for Adult Continuing Educations has 2,000 students. 2,800 people work at UCC including more than 800 faculty.

UCC is one of the leading research institutions in the State and its research income is consistently one of the highest in the country. The university offers a research-led curriculum that attracts the highest calibre of students. The university has over 120 degr ee and professional programmes given through some 60 departments.

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