Emily Barrett, Lauren Parlett, Christina Wang, Erma Drobnis, J Redmon, and Shanna Swan
Phthalates, a ubiquitous class of environmental chemicals, may interfere with typical reproductive hormone production both in utero and in adulthood. Although they are best known as anti-androgens, increasingly, evidence suggests that phthalates, particularly di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), may also suppress estrogen production. Given that both androgens and estrogens are essential for sexual function, particularly sexual interest, it is plausible that adult exposure to phthalates alters sexual function. To this end, we used data from 360 women participating in a pregnancy cohort study (the Study for Future Families) to examine whether urinary phthalate metabolite concentrations were associated with two dimensions of self-reported sexual dysfunction in the months prior to conception: lack of sexual interest and vaginal dryness. Women in the highest quartile of urinary concentrations of mono-2-ethyl-5-hydroxyhexyl phthalate, a DEHP metabolite, had 2.58 (95% CI 1.33, 5.00) times the adjusted odds of reporting that they almost always or often lacked interest in sexual activity, and results were similar for mono-2-ethyl-5-oxohexyl phthalate (aOR: 2.56, 95% CI 1.32, 4.95), another DEHP metabolite. Self-reported vaginal dryness was not associated with any phthalate metabolite concentration. This study is novel in its focus on sexual function in relation to environmentally relevant (rather than occupational) exposure to phthalates in adult women and these preliminary findings merit replication in a large, prospective study. Better understanding how adult exposure to phthalates may affect reproductive health, including sexual function, is of public health interest given that virtually all Westerners are exposed to phthalates.