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Proudly Pro-Phthalate

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I question the findings of a new study that says that phthalates make boys less masculine. Amongst other problems, what's so wrong with a little less roughhousing and playing with toy trucks?

boy playing barbie doll

Brett Berk: A study was recently published in the International Journal of Andrology that claims that phthalates (weird chemicals made up mostly of bizarre consonant combinations like thylh and which appear to be in everything, from packaged food to cosmetics to air fresheners) have an "adverse" effect on pregnant women, causing them to give birth to boys who exhibit "less masculine" play behaviors. While one of my colleagues here has already commented on it, as momlogic's resident scientific study deconstructor, I'd like to more carefully analyze this alleged finding in three ways.

1. Is it true? The sample size of this study was relatively small, the data were self-reported by the participating parents -- a notoriously inaccurate means of assessment -- and the moms who were included had already taken part in another widely publicized study correlating phthalates and smaller penile and testicular volume, potentially biasing their responses. None of this wholly discounts the findings, but in combination, it certainly calls their objectivity and veracity into question.

2. What the hell is "less masculine" play? The study defines masculine play as involving traditionally "male" toys like cars and trucks, and incorporating the exhibition of traditionally "male" behaviors like roughhousing. I've worked with tens of thousands of preschool-age kids over my 20 years in early childhood education -- and I can tell you, not all boys play like this. Moreover, what were the standards for defining what was and was not roughhousing or vehicle play? I've seen kids vroom Barbies along the ground like roadsters and play house with cars and blocks. This feels like an incredibly slippery rubric on which to hang one's findings.

3. Why is "less masculine" play an issue?
More than anything else, the study attempts to whip people into a frenzy by problematizing the idea of boys potentially behaving in this manner. Though it may not make my friends at Hot Wheels or General Motors very happy, the world as we know it will not come to an end if fewer boys play with toy cars. And the earth will not suddenly implode if there is less "roughhousing." (In fact, it's possible that this will have the opposite effect.)

Obviously we don't want all our boys to end up sterile -- this would stop our continuing the glorious reign of humans on this planet. And I'm obviously opposed to anything that may adversely affect penis size. But given the evidence, I'm considering coming out in favor of phthalates. Put a stop to aggression and war, and end the needless burning of fossil fuels in vehicles. Bring on the Lunchables, L'Oréal, and Glade.



next: AWOL Military Mom's Mother Speaks Out
32 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous November 18, 2009, 12:17 PM

You are not wrong: I asked a doctor to look at the statistics in the study, and her response was that the researchers had tortured the data to find a statistical correlation. When you add this to the problems you describe, the study looks more meaningless than meaningful

Dana November 18, 2009, 5:07 PM

Phabulous points.

jj November 19, 2009, 2:03 AM

Brett, this research wasn’t high quality being of the self reported variety with the resultant lack of rigorous controls, but I suspect it wasn’t intended as primary research anyway; it merely is hoping to offer a somewhat unique sociological perspective on what is already well established as a medical problem, to wit, the feminizing effects of phthalates and their role as endocrine disruptors.

From the environmental and product safety standpoint, based on dozens of very high quality and rigorous peer-reviewed research efforts, prenatal exposure to phthalates has already been demonstrated to be harmful and thus to be avoided.

Theresa November 19, 2009, 6:13 AM

My brother and I played house with marbles and bugs, and dressed up our Star Wars figures!

It’s obviously important to study the effects of phthalates. But I wish the study had looked at a more significant endpoint.

Not only is it a weak result with doubtful significance, it does real harm in playing into society’s fear and hatred of “girly boys.”

Doc, call me when you find a real effect on health — or when you find the level of phthalates required to restore greatness to American musical theater.

JennyOndioline November 19, 2009, 2:50 PM

This study just sounds like it was flawed all around. From what I understand phthalates pose a real medical concern, and IMHO the US should ban them like Europe has. But to make the point that they make boys “less masculine?!” That’s just messed up. That’s not even a valid, scientifically measurable criterion as far as I can see. These people need to go back to grade school and get another lesson in the Scientific Method.

tobin November 20, 2009, 4:28 AM

What is less masculine play? Well, I see that little boy is holding that Barbie rather gently. Wouldn’t a real boy tear her head off after looking up her skirt?

Gee, I thought we were still busy with the buzz that tofu makes little boys gay.

If I had a son I would be torn with worry what with phtapalates and tofu and all that conflict resolution wimpy stuff they are teaching them.

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