University of Birmingham bioscientists have developed a simple test that can be used by manufacturers to detect artificial hormones that may be present in their products.

These types of compounds that occur in plastic products have been found to alter normal hormone regulation by acting as ‘feminising agents’ in a wide range of species such as fish, birds and also rats. These agents can be found in non-rigid plastics such as hospital drips, food packaging and children’s toys.

Hormones are chemicals released into the blood by endocrine glands. They are responsible for coordinating processes throughout the body by regulating functions such as metabolism, the sleep-wake cycle, stress response, the structure of the bones and reproduction. Changes in hormone regulation can alter behaviour and physique, for example, too much testosterone in a woman will bring about more aggressive behaviour, whereas an increase in oestrogen in a man will generate weight gain and a placid character.

The test works by measuring the ability of a chemical to block oestrogen inactivation – this increases the level of the free active hormone. Some of the compounds identified by the test, such as phthalate esters which are used as plasticisers, have already been banned in the EC from use in children’s toys because they alter hormonal regulation in rats and may therefore affect other mammals such as humans.

Dr Rosemary Waring from the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences says, ‘The test we have developed is easy to use and industrial companies will be able to use it to test the plastics in their own products before going to the manufacturing stage. Some of the chemicals used to manufacture plastics do not have hormonal effects and early testing will help manufacturers to identify compounds which are safe.

‘At the moment we do not know whether humans are affected by these artificial hormones, although there is naturally concern because rates of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast, prostate and testicular cancer are increasing.’

A public seminar is being held to discuss artificial hormones on Friday 3 March between 0900-1700h at the University of Birmingham. The day will consist of a series of talks by various international speakers. Anyone from industry or the general public who wishes to attend should call Dr Waring (0121-414-5421) or email


For further information

Kate Chapple, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, tel 0121 414 2772 or 07789 921164.