Researchers say that chemicals contained in thousands of plastic items used in households have the capacity to alter the manliness of boys making them develop girly tendencies.
Although most of the comprehensive studies have originally been done on laboratory animals, and have only in recent years come into the public domain, researchers say correlation between their findings and discoveries emerging in humans have a high rate of convergence.
As a result, in the US for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has, according to the broadcaster CBS, put phthalates, the substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity on a red list.
The chemicals are being investigated for disruption of hormone activity and some preliminary studies have shown that they may be causing a slow and steady demasculinising of men.
Other chemicals linked to gender-bending qualities include Bisphenol A (BPA, which is a colourless solid used in the manufacture of plastics), as well as polychlorinated biphenyl , a man-made chemical with a wide range of industrial uses.
One major ongoing research and whose findings have been serialised since the study started in 1989, has reported that raised pre-natal exposure to phthalates of male fetuses and baby boys affects their masculine development.
In a pilot study conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Centre and published in the International Journal of Andrology, researchers say because testosterone produces the masculine brain, they are concerned that fetal exposure to anti-androgens or anti-male hormones such as phthalates has the potential to alter masculine brain development.
Testosterone is the principal male sex hormone, meaning it is the chemical that makes men to behave like men, preferring hunting to cooking and wrestling to netball.
Lead researcher, Prof Shanna H. Swan, was quoted by the centre’s journal as saying: “Our results need to be confirmed, but they are intriguing on several fronts.
She added: “Not only are they compatible with current knowledge about how hormones mold sex differences in the brain but they are also consistent with our prior findings that link phthalates to altered male genital development, and thus behaviour.”
According to Prof Swan’s study women who have higher levels of phthalates during pregnancy give birth to boys with a slightly shorter distance from the start of their genitals to the anus, mirroring a discovery made in male rodents exposed to the chemical. In rodents, the shrinkage is viewed as feminising the male genital tract.
Boys whose mothers had the highest phthalate levels are also more likely than others to have smaller penises and un-descended or incompletely descended testicles, Prof Swan says.
In most cases, these are not serious problems, the International Journal of Andrology quotes Prof Swan as saying. Babies with un-descended testicles often need no treatment, because the organs descend on their own by age 1.
Others can be helped with hormone treatment or surgery. And even the smaller penises appeared to be within the normal range, writes the journal.
But Swan says she’s concerned that these changes indicate a deeper problem — that phthalates may have made the boys “less masculine” in key ways. In animals, males with these genital changes also had lower sperm counts, she is quoted as saying.
Recent studies have shown that the major source of human exposure to the two phthalates of most concern (DEHP and DBP) is through food.
The chemical is used primarily in a large number of plastics, food containers and wrappers, bathroom curtains, detergents, adhesives and glues, and agricultural chemicals.
Personal-care items containing phthalates include perfume, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, liquid soap, shampoo and hair spray among others.
Children can be exposed to phthalates by chewing on soft vinyl toys or other products made with them.
Packaging, storage, or heating of food that use Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) containing products can introduce them into the food chain.
It has also been found that as plastics age and break down, the release of phthalates accelerates.
PVC is widely used in construction because it is durable, cheap, and easily worked. All of us are familiar with PVC water pipes, so let’s consider what will happen to water supplies when the pipes age.
Prof Swan says that the “phthalate syndrome” should be more thoroughly investigated and a deeper examination of how they affect the brain done.
In the study, it was found that boys born to mothers who had been found with high levels of phthalates in their urine played with girly toys.
She notes too that other researchers have linked phthalates to reduced sperm quality and DNA damage, as well as hormone changes.
One such researcher is British Professor Richard Sharpe, a reproductive biologist who revealed in research recently that BPA is to blame for the disruption of the male sex hormone-testosterone- which is “feminising” boys in the womb.
The hormone testosterone regulates the normal growth of male fetuses, regulates male puberty, and promotes sperm production.
He is reported to have found that the chemical at high levels can block the male sex hormone testosterone, by mimicking the female hormone estrogen.
BPA is the primary component in polycarbonate plastic and is used in the resin lining of most food and beverage cans.
It is the principal building block of polycarbonate plastic and is used in a wide range of products, including clear drinkware like plastic baby bottles and sippy cups.
Further Research at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University found that boys whose mothers were exposed to PCBs and dioxins were more likely to play with dolls and tea sets and dress up in female clothes. PCBs readily penetrate skin.
This now banned substance is still widespread in the environment because it is resistant to environmental degradation.
People can be exposed to PCBs through breathing in contaminated air, consuming contaminated food, and by skin contact with old electrical equipment that contain PCBs.
PCBs, have been shown to both inhibit and imitate estradiol, the main sex hormone in females and are suspected to affect secondary sexual development. PCBs collect in milk fat and can be transmitted to infants through breast-feeding.
In tests done on wild life it was found that chemicals such as PCBs pose a serious threat to reproduction in top-level male predators.
Yet another research in the early 1990s, by scientists in Florida studying alligators living in a lake contaminated with the banned insecticide, DDT, and related pesticides noticed that the male alligators had developed tinier penises and become less aggressive.
Research has confirmed that DDT acts like estrogen when it enters the body, and that its breakdown product, DDE, blocks male hormones such as testosterone.
The range of contaminants, scientists think, may also offer a clue to a mysterious shift in the sex of babies with the proportion of females rising drastically in the past few years.
But even the chemicals’ continued use in many countries goes unabated, the US, Europe and Canada, have progressively banned the use of some of them in the manufacture of products, particularly in children’s toys and baby bottles, while Australia and Sweden are said to be phasing out their use.
However, even as controversies have been swirling over the use of the chemical there has been sustained resistance by industrialists who say there are not significant enough amounts of the said substances to warrant withdrawal of use of the products.
But the more worrying fact is the ubiquity of the chemicals and the fact that products containing them are not necessarily labelled as containing these products.
Absentees fathers also to blame
The world over, questions are being raised on the mental, physical, emotional and genetic makeup of the modern man. When men put on blouses do they become less men?
Adding evidence of de-masculation is the growth of men’s cosmetics industry and preoccupation with grooming.
Moi University sociologist Dr Catherine Kituko Simiyu says that today’s man is doing things that men of yore would not be caught dead doing.
These trends have been gradually changing the way society looks at man.
Wearing braided hair, ear studs, conspicuous jewelry and carefully manicured polished fingernails, the man can easily pass for a woman.
The appearance of such kinds of males on the scene has elicited reactions ranging from amusement, appeal, surprise, pity, to outright hostility.
In 2011, Kenyans debated whether or not Dr Willy Mutunga was qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice. Reason? a stud on his ear.
Religious organisations led the protest arguing that the stud cast doubts about his morality.
Dr Simiyu has since 2009 been investigating why some men were increasingly displaying female dispositions.
In a research titled: The crisis arising from the feminisation of some forms of masculinity, she writes that a combination of factors has been unfolding over past few decades resulting in what we are witnessing today.
For instance the patriarchal system in which boys were taught that the centre of their identity was physical strength and aggression is fast weakening.
Walking the streets of Kenyan towns, one comes face to face with young men who display an ‘ambiguous’ gender appearance, and by extension, identity.
They are exactly like those of the modern Kenyan woman, having intruded the beauty salons where the women go.
“At first glance you can hardly tell whether you are talking to a man or woman when you talk to some men,” says Dr Simiyu who avers there’s the general feature of how society defines your identity; which ties up one’s gender whether male or female with their appearance.
Dr Simiyu believes that the primary definer of behaviour is the home. Yet, the traditional male virtues that used to be taught and encouraged in young men are virtually invisible.
She says that the change in the male behaviour is also influenced by changing relations between men and women and weakened traditional structures of society.
Because of the conspicuous absence of fathers in the home, she says, children develop mainly under the sole influence of their mothers.
“The fathers are largely absent from their homes and even when they are present they are emotionally detached from their roles,” she explains.
When boys are raised by their mothers they are bound to learn how to be gentle, submissive, timid and tender.
This is what is called feminisation hypnosis. Through this process, boys may acquire and learn the emotional and psychological aspects of a woman.
Dr Simiyu’s observation echoes those of Esther Kelly a business woman in Nairobi.
“I am married, but my husband is rarely home. He comes in late in the night and leaves early in the morning and never gets to see the children. And I believe I am justifiably worried for my son (10 years) because he is definitely showing feminine aspects in his behaviour.
Ever since I can remember he has been following me around the kitchen and doing the things I do. I think this is because his father who is supposed to be his role model is normally not there for him to copy,” she says.
She recalls something falling with a thud in another room of the house and the son jumping from his seat and was clinging on to her.
“Both of us were trembling. When I scream in the kitchen at the sight of a cockroach he also will cringe in fear a boy of 10 has only a few years to become a man. I just don’t know when he will start learning how to become a man,” she says.