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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Chemicals 'stunt sexual development'
Children were affected by pollution
Children were affected by pollution
Teenagers living near waste incinerators sexually mature later than their peers.

Tests compared teenagers living in polluted suburbs to those living in a more rural area.

Scientists found that boys from the suburbs had smaller testicles and girls smaller breasts than their rural peers.

But they also found high levels of two particular chemical pollutants, dioxins and PCBs, in the children's bodies, both of which are thought to retard sexual development.


Youngsters are especially vulnerable to a large number of noxious agents

Dr Jans Staessen,
University of Leuven
Lead researcher Dr Jans Staessen, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, told BBC News Online: "In the exposed group 40% of the boys and the girls were not matured to the adult stage of sexual development. Almost all of the other group were.

"Youngsters are especially vulnerable to a large number of noxious agents and their protection is an important public health challenge.

"Our findings suggest that current environmental standards are insufficient to avoid measurable biological effects, which may be the harbinger of disorders in adult life."

Pollution levels

Human exposure to pollution is usually monitored by analysing external sources such as soil and water samples.

But the Belgian team took a more direct approach to examine the effect on the human body.

They analysed blood, urine and tissue samples for concentrations of pollutants.

But they also looked for chemicals produced by the body when it reacts badly to the effects of pollution - these are known as biomarkers.

Two hundred 17-year-olds were involved in the study, which concentrated on three areas near Antwerp in Belgium.

Half lived in the polluted industrial centres of Hoboken and Wilrijk, near to waste incinerators and a motorway network.

Monitoring

The others lived in the rural area of Peer, where there is no heavy industry or motorways.

The study looked at four main classes of environmental pollutants, heavy metals, and three classes of chemical pollutants, some of which can cause cancers.

The children from the industrial areas had higher concentrations of all the pollutants in their samples.

Children exposed to lead were found to have biomarkers indicating kidney malfunction.

While children with traces of exposure to pollutants called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) had biomarkers indicating damage to their DNA.


Scientists have found 300 man-made chemicals in the body

Dr Michael Warhurst
FoE
Dr Staessen added: "Biomonitoring of adolescents is a sensitive method to track exposure to common environmental pollutants of different classes and their biological effects long before overt disease develops.

Dr Michael Warhurst, Safer Chemicals Campaigner from Friends of the Earth (FoE), said there were growing levels of exposure to chemicals - particularly affecting the poor.

"Scientists have found 300 man-made chemicals in the body," he said.

"What's particularly interesting about this research is that they were going into people's bodies and finding out what was going on."

A year ago, FoE published a report called 'Crisis in Chemicals', which looked at a "biomedical revolution" which it said would make it easier to measure different aspects of the body.

The research is published in The Lancet medical journal.

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See also:

04 Jan 01 | Health
Pollution 'could cause asthma'
15 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Pollution 'hits rural poor hardest'
22 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Pollution 'damages intelligence'
02 Aug 00 | Health
City dwellers 'dying younger'
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