Chemicals Produce Gender-Bending Risk To Children

By Geoffrey Lean
Environmental Editor
The Independent - UK


Minute amounts of ''gender bender'' chemicals found in food and the environment are affecting the behaviour of pre-school children, new research shows.

The Environment minister Michael Meacher said yesterday the research was very disturbing and he would ask his officials to "urgently'' examine its implications tomorrow morning.

The study - carried out by doctors and scientists at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam - is the first in the world to show that normal levels of the chemicals affect humans. It follows a host of studies showing that gender-benders can turn wildlife species, from gulls and alligators to fish and turtles, into hermaphrodites. In the case of the children in the study, the chemicals caused girls to play with guns and pretend to be soldiers, and boys to play with dolls and tea sets and dress up in female clothes.

The research, published in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is part of a long-term study into the effects of PCBs and dioxins on children. The researchers measured levels of the chemicals in the blood of 207 mothers in their final month of pregnancy, in umbilical blood at birth, and in breast milk two weeks after birth, to determine exposure in the womb.

They later asked the parents of the children, now aged seven, to record their patterns of play.

The girls exposed to higher levels of PCBs were more likely to engage in masculine play, while similarly exposed boys were more likely to enjoy feminine play. Dioxins produced more feminine play in boys and girls.

The most disturbing aspect of the study is that the mothers were exposed to routine amounts of the chemicals - probably from eating normal food, experts believe. Previous studies have found that the chemicals damage the immune systems, neurological development and intelligence of children.

Nearly one and a half million tons of PCBs have been spread around the world in materials such as paint and plastic. They have been banned in industrialised countries but persist in the environment and in body fat. Dioxins and PCBs both contaminate food at low levels.