Sexual maturation in relation to polychlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons: Sharpe and Skakkebaek's hypothesis revisited

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Aug;110(8):771-6. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110771.


Polychlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons (PCAHs) have been described as endocrine disruptors in animals and in accidentally or occupationally exposed humans. In the present study we examined the effect of moderate exposure to PCAHs on sexual maturation. Two hundred adolescents (mean age, 17.4 years) who resided in two polluted suburbs and a rural control area in Flanders (Belgium) participated. We measured the serum concentration of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) congeners 138, 153, and 180 and dioxin-like compounds [chemically activated luciferase expression (CALUX) assay] as biomarkers of exposure. School physicians assessed the pubertal development of boys and girls and measured testicular volume. In one suburb near two waste incinerators, compared with the other suburb and the control area, fewer boys (p < 0.001) had reached the adult stages of genital development (62% vs. 92% and 100%, respectively) and pubic hair growth (48% vs. 77% and 100%). Also, in the same suburb, fewer girls (p = 0.04) had reached the adult stage of breast development (67% vs. 90% and 79%). In individual boys, a doubling of the serum concentration of PCB congener 138 increased the odds of not having matured into the adult stage of genital development by 3.5 (p = 0.04); similarly for PCB congener 153 in relation to male pubic hair growth, the odds ratio was 3.5 (p = 0.04). In girls, a doubling of the serum dioxin concentration increased the odds of not having reached the adult stage of breast development by 2.3 (p = 0.02). Left plus right testicular volume was lower in both polluted areas than in the control area (42.4 mL vs. 47.3 mL, p = 0.005) but was not related to the current exposure of the adolescents to PCAHs. Through endocrine disruption, environmental exposure to PCAHs may interfere with sexual maturation and in the long-run adversely affect human reproduction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Biomarkers
  • Breast / growth & development
  • Dioxins / adverse effects*
  • Dioxins / blood
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / adverse effects*
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / blood
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / adverse effects*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / blood
  • Puberty
  • Risk Assessment
  • Sexual Maturation / drug effects*
  • Testis / drug effects
  • Testis / growth & development*


  • Biomarkers
  • Dioxins
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls