Breasts are a source of pride for many females and a source of shame for some males.
A blossoming bosom can be highly embarrassing in the junior high boys’ locker room, and scientists are starting to understand some of the causes of this condition, which is called gynecomastia. Amazingly, one could be Mom’s aromatherapy habit.
Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that chemicals in common aromatherapy oils have endocrine disrupting properties which are linked to breast growth in boys. J. Tyler Ramsey and colleagues pointed the finger at lavender and tea tree oils, which, they write, “are purported to reduce stress, aid with sleep, and mitigate negative effects of multiple human diseases.”
These oils are known to be linked to breast growth in pre-pubertal boys, and their latest study shows exactly which components of various oils seem to be the culprits. The scientists say the problem is that eucalyptol, linalyl acetate and other chemicals mimic the effects of sex hormones which confuses developing bodies and can lead to those dangling male mammary appendages. Another small study of three boys found that “gynecomastia resolved in each patient shortly after the use of products containing these oils was discontinued.”
Other causes of boy and man breasts can include liver and kidney disease, tumours and the use of certain medications. While most cases in boys resolve spontaneously in a couple of years, it’s important to see a physician to rule out these kinds of problems.
Endocrine disruption jumped into the news about a decade ago when scientists found that bisphenol A (BPA), a common component of plastic products, could mimic estrogen and bind to one of its receptors. While scientists haven’t decided how big the risk is, Canada listed BPA as a “toxic substance” in 2010 and banned it in baby bottles. The market has really spoken on this, and if you check your newest water bottle, you’ll probably find it says “BPA free” on the bottom.
But the receipt for that bottle could be a problem. A 2017 study at Stockholm University and the University of Alberta had six male volunteers handle thermal printer receipts for five minutes. Three of them still had BPA in their urine a week later. The researchers concluded that BPA that is absorbed through the skin, as opposed to being ingested, is metabolized less efficiently, so it lingers longer.
It’s even possible that we can blame endocrine disruption of our forebears for those extra pounds around our midsections. Bruce Blumberg of the University of California, Irvine, showed that in utero exposure in mice to “the endocrine disrupting obesogen tributyltin (TBT) predisposed male offspring to obesity, and the effect carried on for three generations.” Researchers believe that TBT exposure before birth programmed the mice, and their progeny, to have the “thrifty phenotype.” This means, he writes, that “an individual stores more of the calories consumed and resists weight loss during times of limited food availability.”
The list of endocrine disrupters seems to keep growing, and some of them have nothing to do with lifestyle choices like aromatherapy or the kind of water bottle you use. S.A. Sapouckey and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts found that chemicals used in hydraulic fracking and directional drilling can be problematic.
They created a mixture of 23 chemicals used in unconventional oil and gas operations (UOG-MIX) and exposed mice to it. “Both male and female offspring exposed prenatally to one or more doses of UOG-MIX displayed alterations to endocrine organ function and serum hormone concentrations,” they write. In their latest study, again in mice, they found that “that the mammary gland is sensitive to mixtures of chemicals used in UOG production at exposure levels that are environmentally relevant.” Clearly, there are implications for how these chemicals are handled in the resource industry.
Even if you aren’t exposed to oil and gas fluids, it’s probable that you come into contact with endocrine disrupting chemicals every day. The list includes pesticides, packaging materials, and even substances in household cleaning products and cosmetics. It’s good advice for pregnant and nursing women, and the parents of young children, to be particularly cautious around endocrine disrupters.
We also need to use common sense. A recent study showed that chemicals in a common flame retardant chemical, Firemaster 550 (FM550) can disrupt the function of the placenta in rats, which led to altered production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Components in this same product have been also shown to make sheep fat and to disrupt their thyroid function.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that FM550 should be banned or even that we should completely avoid it, since the consequences of something like your couch catching on fire could be far more catastrophic than the endocrine disruption effects.
It does mean that we need to keep doing this kind of research and should avoid needless exposure to endocrine disrupters. So Moms (and Dads), it’s probably a good idea to put that aromatherapy diffuser away until Junior starts shaving.
Tom Keenan is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and author of the bestselling book, Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy
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