Rise in Penis Birth Defects and Toxic Chemicals

Healthcare professionals are seeing an alarming increase in cases of a specific genital malformation known as hypospadias* in male babies. Are environmental toxins to blame?  New research suggests that may be the case.

Scientists have recently discovered a direct link between hypospadias tissue samples and the presence of epigenetic alterations — changes to the molecular factors and processes around DNA that determine how genes behave.  The study demonstrated the etiology of this disease is environmentally driven through epigenetics (rather than a result of changes to the DNA sequence).

So what is triggering the birth defects?  Researchers don’t know what specific environmental factors are leading to hypospadias. One possible culprit (among many) is a synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was prescribed to pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s to prevent miscarriages and premature births. Affected babies would pass down this likelihood to future generations. Of course, there are other synthetic estrogens used widely in the U.S. like bisphenol-A (BPA) and bisphenol-S (BPS) commonly found in the inner lining of food cans and drink bottles, among other places.  Future research is needed to determine the origin.

*The malformation known as hypospadias is an abnormal foreskin development causing the opening of the urethra to not be located at the tip of the penis, but on the underside of the organ. Incidents of this malformation have increased significantly (11.5%) in recent decades.

Journal reference: Kaefer, M., et al. Role of epigenetics in the etiology of hypospadias through penile foreskin DNA methylation alterations. Scientific Reports, 13, Article number: 555 (2023).

DOI:   https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-27763-5 Study.