Scientists already knew that certain chemicals found in plastics, called phthalates, could damage boys' genitals. Now a study shows they also make boys less interested in stereotypically male toys.
A team from the University of Rochester tested pregnant women's urine to determine their fetuses' exposure to phthalates. They found that boys exposed to high levels were less interested in "boys' toys" like cars, trains, or guns, and less likely to engage in "rough and tumble" play. The boys were apparently more interested in "gender-neutral" pursuits like sports. The scientists found no effect on girls.
While it's nice that the reactions to the study describe sports as "gender-neutral," it's a little odd that they describe the effect of phthalates as "feminizing." Elizabeth Salter-Green, of the British anti-chemical group CHEM Trust, says of the research,
We now know that phthalates, to which we are all constantly exposed, are extremely worrying from a health perspective, leading to disruption of male reproduction health and, it appears, male behaviour too.
This feminising capacity of phthalates makes them true 'gender benders'.
The fact that phthalates can affect boys' behavior at all is disturbing, especially given that the compounds are found in common items like shower curtains and plastic furniture. Coupled with their known effect on baby boys' genital development, this new research seems like more than enough evidence to ban their use entirely (the EU already bans them from cosmetics and toys), and to study other industrial chemicals with more scrutiny. But is it true that the compounds are "feminizing" boys, perverting their "natural" male roughness and gun-love and replacing it with girlier, softer interests? Insofar as phthalates — especially the compounds DEHP and DBP, found to be harmful in the study — can mimic estrogen, it seems that sex hormones and their analogs can affect children's play. But that still doesn't mean that we need to divide children's playthings into boys' toys and girls' toys, or that we need to think of a change in male behavior as — horrors! — boys turning into girls. Any change in boys' behavior brought on by environmental toxins is cause for concern, regardless of whether it "feminizes" them.