Women with the highest level of environmental exposure to phthalates were more than twice as likely to report a lack of sexual interest, as compared with women with the lowest level of exposure, according to a study presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) 2014 Annual Meeting.

Researchers tested for phthalate metabolite concentrations in urine of pregnant women from four cities in the United States in the Study for Future Families (SFF). They also had the women complete questionnaires about sexual problems that they may have experienced in the months leading to conception.

Adjustments were made for covariates, including age, parity, education, race, stress and antidepressant use.

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Of 360 women, 46 reported lack of interest in sexual activity in the months leading up to conception and 37 reported vaginal dryness, according to the data.

Results showed that women in the highest quartile of exposure to mono-2-ethyl-5-hydroxyhexyl phthalate (MEHHP) had 2.58 (95% CI, 3.33-5.00) times the adjusted odds of reporting a lack of interest in sexual activity. These data were comparable for exposure to mono-2-ethyl-5-oxohexyl phthalate (MEOHP; adjusted odds ratio=2.56; 95% CI, 1.32-4.95).

The researchers noted similar associations for exposure to all other phthalate metabolites evaluated in the study, but these remained nonsignificant.

Vaginal dryness remained unrelated to any phthalate exposure.

The researchers concluded that phthalate exposure may play a role in decreased sexual interest in women.

“Better understanding of how adult exposure to phthalates may affect reproductive health, including sexual function, is of utmost public health importance given that virtually all Americans show measurable levels of exposure,” the researchers wrote in an abstract.

In a press release, Rebecca Z. Sokol, MD, MPH, president of ASRM, echoed the researchers’ sentiments and emphasized the importance of avoiding phthalate exposure when possible.

“Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is difficult to avoid in our society. As we learn more about the effects they have on human health and reproduction, we are realizing that we need to find ways to protect ourselves from them and find alternatives to their use,” she said.


  1. Barrett ES et al. Abstract P-321. Presented at: American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) 2014 Annual Meeting; Oct. 18-22, 2014; Honolulu.