Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 02:46 GMT

Common chemical 'damages sperm'

A chemical used to preserve cosmetics and fragrances may cause damage to sperm in adult men.

Scientists from Harvard University have uncovered evdience that exposure to the chemical, one of a group known as the phthalates, may lead to damage to the genetic material of human sperm.

" The correlation found in this study is extremely troubling. " Dr Ted Schettler

However, the scientists are unsure as to whether this damage could leave men infertile, or cause birth defects.

The chemicals have previously been linked to birth defects in animals, but no evidence has proved they are harmful to humans.

Controversy over the use of phthalates was whipped up last month when the US Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, an industry-sponsored watchdog, voted to allow the continued use of three types of the chemical in perfumes and beauty products.

Campaigners challenged the panel's assertion that the chemicals were safe in their current uses.

Phthalates are used to make fragrances last longer and to soften plastics.

However, the European Union banned their use in some products, including baby toys, in 1999.

Early findings

The study, conducted at a Massachusetts fertility clinic, analysed urine and semen samples from 168 men believed to have normal levels of exposure to diethyl phthalates through the use of cosmetics products and plastics.

Lead researcher Professor Russ Hauser said preliminary results suggested exposure to those phthalates was associated with increased DNA damage in sperm.

But he said: "What the significance of it is, we don't know. What it predicts in terms of end points in the foetus or child is really unclear at this point."

The scientists now plan a bigger study which will measure factors such as pregnancy success rates.

Dr Ted Schettler, of the group Environmental Health Network which is campaigning against the use of phthalates, said:"The correlation found in this study is extremely troubling and deserves urgent follow up."

The research is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.