Some environmental medicine experts worry that parents using any one of dozens of baby products could be exposing their children to chemicals that could hurt their reproductive ability later on in life.
In a new study, University of Washington researchers found evidence of chemicals called phthalates in the urine of 163 infants exposed to a baby product such as shampoo, lotion or powder. The study was released Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
However, there still exists little evidence that phthalates — man-made chemicals that are found in many products from tubing to cosmetics — cause any harm to humans.
Still, the researchers noted that the fact that evidence of the substances were found in the urine of more than 80 percent of the babies in the study suggests more should be done to identify products that contain these chemicals.
"We still do not know what the true long-term effects of these chemicals are," said lead study author Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, pediatric environmental health fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But we do have more evidence that they are linked to human health effects at concentrations we are exposed to every day."
Some environmental medicine experts not affiliated with the study said the research should sound an alarm to both parents and pediatricians.
"Parents and physicians should pay close attention to these results," said Bernard Weiss, professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y.
"We already possess substantial data demonstrating that the developing child is at risk for a number of adverse health effects arising from phthalate exposure," he said.
Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, agreed that concern is warranted.
"Parents and doctors should be worried about their children's exposures to phthalates and other chemicals that are largely untested for toxicity," he said. "For far too long, we have allowed industries to market their product without evidence that the products are safe when used as directed.
"The public health implications of these products are considerable."
Despite the finding that the chemicals may be more ubiquitous in infants than once thought, the new research is unlikely to quell the debate over whether phthalates are indeed harmful to babies.
While most past research has been done in mice and other animals, a growing number of studies are looking at the possible effects of the chemicals on humans. And thus far, most of these studies, conducted in both the United States and Europe, have not suggested that the chemicals have a detrimental effect on human health.
"The study did not find adverse effects from phthalates, nor was it designed to find such effects," said Dr. Marcel Casavant, chief of pharmacology and toxicology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "That phthalates are present in most or all of us isn't particularly new; what the study adds is that absorption of phthalates through the skin seems to be an important way many babies get their phthalates.
"I don't think this information should worry parents."