Tiny amounts of chemicals found in food and the environment are affecting the gender behavior of preschool children. A new study by doctors and scientists in the Netherlands shows that normal levels of PCBs and dioxins are “gender-benders” that affect human and animal sexuality. Wildlife species, from seagulls and alligators to fish and turtles, are turning into hermaphrodites. In the children in the study, the chemicals caused girls to play with guns and pretend to be soldiers, and boys to play with dolls and dress up in female clothes.

The researchers measured levels of the chemicals in the blood of 207 mothers in their final month of pregnancy, in umbilical cord blood at birth, and in breast milk two weeks after birth, to determine the exposure to infants in the womb. Later, they asked the parents of the children, now age seven, to record their children?s patterns of play.

Girls exposed to higher levels of PCBs were more likely to engage in masculine play, while boys were more likely to play in traditionally feminine ways. Dioxins produced more feminine play in both boys and girls.

The most disturbing part of this study is that the mothers were exposed to routine, “acceptable” amounts of the chemicals, probably from eating normal food. Nearly one and a half million tons of PCBs have been spread around the world in materials such as paint and plastic. They have been banned in most industrialized countries but persist in the environment, where they contaminate food at low levels.

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