Chemicals in oral contraceptives and food containers harm the development of baby
mice and US experts are concerned about the effects in humans.
Male mice exposed to the substances while in the womb developed deformities of
the prostate and urethra.
The University of Missouri team published its findings in Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences.
But experts urged people not to be alarmed and said there was no clear evidence
of such problems in humans.
The two man-made chemicals tested by the researchers were ethinylestradiol and
Ethinylestradiol is found in the oral contraceptive pill and bisphenol A is found
in plastic food containers and the lining of tin cans.
The team fed mice doses of these chemicals below the range pregnant women can
be exposed to if they continue to use oral contraceptives or eat contaminated
food and beverages.
The male foetuses of the exposed pregnant mice developed bigger prostates and
had narrowing of the urethra - the tube that empties the bladder of urine.
Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri,
who led the study, said: "During foetal life, small amounts of such oestrogenic
chemicals could permanently disrupt cellular control systems and predispose the
prostate to disease."
He believes it is possible that these chemicals might lead to prostate cancer.
Professor Roger Kirby, urologist at St George's hospital in London, UK, and spokesman
for the charity Prostate Research Campaign, said the new research might help shed
light on rising prostate cancer rates.
"We are seeing more prostate cancer, and are also seeing it in younger people.
So clearly there could be some environmental factor."
But he cautioned: "These findings are not conclusive and people should not
be concerned. It's more of a warning light flashing on the dashboard. We need
He said pregnant mothers might be advised to avoid these chemicals when possible.
Dr Richard Sharpe, from the UK's Medical Research Council Human Reproductive Sciences
Unit in Edinburgh, said: "This is not showing that there is an effect on
prostate cancer or prostate disease in adults.
"The study is on mice and the findings cannot be extrapolated to humans.
The mouse is not a good model for the human in this case.
"During pregnancy, women produce a lot of oestrogen so babies are exposed
to this naturally. This does not happen in mice."
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