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Why baby boys are turning into girls

By | May 15th 2009

By Elizabeth Mwai

Some cosmetics and soap used by pregnant women have the potential to "feminise" male foetuses during the formative stage in the womb.

Further, the effects of pesticides and herbicides in common use in farms, and where unsuspecting expectant mothers work have also been found

to contain chemicals raise the boys risk of cancer and infertility later in life.

Prof Richard Sharpe, a leading researcher at Britain’s Medical Research Council, says hormone-disrupting chemicals are also linked to soaring rates of birth defects, testicular cancer and falling sperm counts.

The chemical cocktails block the male sex hormone testosterone, or mimic the female sex hormone oestrogen.

The chemicals include phthalates found in vinyl flooring, plastics, soaps, toothpaste; Bisphenol found in babies’ bottles and food can linings, mobile phones, computers and pesticides like pyrethroids, linuron, vinclozolin and fenitrothion.

"Because it is the summation of effect of hormone-disrupting chemicals that is critical, and the number of chemicals that humans are exposed to is considerable, this provides the strongest possible incentive to minimise human exposure to relevant hormone disruptors, especially women planning pregnancy.

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It is obvious that the higher the exposure the greater the risk," Sharpe said in findings published by the BBC this week.

Sharpe linked the occurrence to the rising rates of birth defects, testicular cancer and falling sperm count.

The irony is that while cosmetics containing mercury were banned 20 years ago, some are still circulating in the Kenyan market.

Pharmacy and Poisons Board Deputy Registrar Fred Sioyi says while lead is not banned, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is setting the appropriate levels of the substance to be allowed in cosmetics.

According to Dr Waithaka Njoroge, who heads the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Department at Kenyatta National Hospital, skin lighteners containing heavy metals like lead and mercury not only destroy the woman’s kidney, but also interfere with sex differentiation of a foetus during early pregnancy.

Exposed to risks

The shocking revelation means that Kenyan women could cause their children lifelong harm from the cosmetics they use to beautify themselves.

In an interview with The Standard, Njoroge said women working on farms in the first three months of pregnancy were not aware of the risks they expose themselves to, emanating from the chemicals they use to spray their crops.

Njoroge said pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture could also feminise boys.

There is evidence that male reproductive health is deteriorating, with malformations of the penis becoming more common, rates of testicular cancer rising and sperm counts falling.

Njoroge noted that due to pollution and subsequent depletion of the ozone layer, a precarious condition for the differentiation of the baby’s sex due to harmful radiations persists.

The exposure to the hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment is attributed to blocking testosterone in the womb, leading to Testicular Dysgenesis Syndrome (TDS) — which is blamed for disruption of the male sex hormone testosterone.

De-masculinisation effects due to chemical pollutants has been reported in many species of wildlife.

Njoroge explained that genetically, nature seems to prefer female to male and that is why when there is sex differentiation, it is mostly in favour of girls.

He describes the male child as weak as witnessed by the survival rate of 54 years in men compared to 56 in women.

"When one is pregnant, one has the protection of nature, but there are things we do which are not very useful to the baby," said Njoroge.

He lists dieting, consumption of incomplete meals, which are deficient in iron but most importantly use of cosmetics that are not healthy for the baby.

New European Union chemicals legislation, Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (Reach), puts the onus on the chemical industry to prove that products are safe.

But the tendency of European manufacturers to retreat to the developing world when threatened by legislation in their own countries means that Kenya and Africa remain in harm’s way.

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