Psychiatric disorders among the DES-exposed reportedly twice as common (as for nonexposed persons)

Physical and psychological problems associated with exposure to DES

1988 Study Abstract

The synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES) was widely prescribed between 1943 and 1971 to minimize pregnancy complications.

It has caused serious physical and psychological damage to the women who took it and to their offspring. DES-exposed mothers may suffer a higher incidence of breast cancer, their exposed daughters are at risk for reproductive tract cancers and infertility, and their exposed sons are more likely to have genital abnormalities and reproductive dysfunction.

Depression and diethylstilbestrol exposure in women, US National Library of Medicine, Hospital & community psychiatry, NCBI PubMed PMID: 3276594, 1988 Jan.

Image credit pedro veneroso.

Psychiatric disorders among DES-exposed persons are reportedly twice as common as for nonexposed persons, with anger, anxiety, low self-worth, identity confusion, and guilt the most frequent symptoms. The author describes therapeutic interventions designed to alleviate these problems.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Management of DES-Exposed Patients : Psychological Support

Screening and Management of Diethylstilbestrol Exposed Offspring


Prenatal diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure in pregnancy has been associated with adenocarcinoma of the vagina and/or cervix as well as teratogenic abnormalities of the genital tract in both female and male offspring. DES Action groups are alerting the public to the dangers inherent in being a `DES daughter‘ or a `DES son‘. Family physicians must be able to reassure those patients who are not DES offspring, manage those who are, and detect those who didn’t know they were. The screening and management of DES problems, including history-taking, physical examination, relevant laboratory exams and consultation for diagnosis and treatment of both male and female patients are discussed. In addition, psychological support, patient education, longterm follow up, the management of contraception and pregnancy in DES daughters, and infertility in DES sons are considered.

Management Of DES-Exposed Male Patients : Psychological Support

Screening and Management of Diethylstilbestrol Exposed Offspring, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, The College of Family Physicians of Canada, NCBI PubMed PMC2153721, 1984 Aug; 30.

Image credit movimente.

Helping families cope with DES-induced abnormality and pathology involves dealing with the family’s and patient’s anger at the medical profession for having led them into this situation. The family doctor has to function in an agonized setting where the cardinal rule ‘first do no harm‘ has been violated.

It also involves helping assuage the mother’s guilt at having collaborated in a treatment which has brought hazard or harm to her children. She must be made to understand that the responsibility rests with the medical profession, one of whose members prescribed a treatment that was generally considered appropriate at the time. A good support for the patient and family is DES Action Groups which provide information and readily available self-help groups.

Where genital abnormality or genital surgery has led to sexual problems, the family physician may have to refer the patient to sexual counsellors and therapists with experience in sexual therapy and rehabilitation.


The seventeenth-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, called medicine “a science that was forced into practice too early“. Implications in some articles we have read in the public press are that doctors gave DES to pregnant women out of some combination of callousness, stupidity and monetary greed. In fact, doctors gave DES to pregnant women who were likely to suffer a spontaneous abortion because it was believed DES might prevent miscarriage.

In retrospect, however, it is important to try and understand why doubleblind studies done in the early 1950s, concluding that DES was ineffectual in maintaining pregnancies at risk, were largely ignored. One answer seems to be that physicians as a group rely too heavily on the pharmaceutical industry’s advertising and not firmly enough on objective research in evaluating the medications we use. The medical profession’s tragic experience with DES should lead us to constantly examine the process of drug evaluation and take steps to control the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on evaluative trials and the dissemination of drug information.

Reading the DES Action literature, one sees, understandably, a lot of anger towards the medical profession. However, despite this background of bitterness, one frequently hears DES patients’ unqualified expressions of appreciation and admiration for the doctors who are presently caring for them.

It is incumbent upon us not to neglect the detection and treatment of DES-induced abnormality and disease. The tools for this task are continual attention to the facts of DES-induced disease as they continue to emerge, and the two basic maneuvers of sound medicine: a good history and a thorough physical examination.

Michael Malus, Alex Ferenczy, 1984.

Download the full paper on NCBI.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Depression and anxiety doubled in the DES-exposed offspring

A randomized double-blind controlled trial of the value of stilboestrol therapy in pregnancy: long-term follow-up of mothers and their offspring


In the early 1950s, a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial of the value of prophylactic stilboestrol therapy given antenatally to reduce the incidence of late pregnancy toxaemia and to improve perinatal mortality was conducted at University College Hospital, London.

A randomized double-blind controlled trial of the value of stilboestrol therapy in pregnancy: long-term follow-up of mothers and their offspring, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, British journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 6357269, 1983 Nov.

Image credit neilmoralee.

Women expecting their first baby were allocated to one or other of two groups. Those in the stilboestrol group started treatment at the 12th week of pregnancy on average and received a mean dose of about 11.5 g of the drug while those in the control group received placebo tablets.

In spite of the fact that the original trial documentation was lost, it was possible to be fairly certain which was the treated group and follow-up data from 650 mothers and 660 offspring were obtained from death certificates, cancer registrations and questionnaires sent to general practitioners.

We found no indication of any harmful long-term effect of stilboestrol exposure during pregnancy on the mothers–in particular 10 out of 331 women in the untreated group and 9 out of 319 women in the treated group were found to have developed breast cancer.

Amongst the daughters, those in the treated group suffered an excess of minor benign lesions of the cervix uteri and an excess (not statistically significant) of unfavourable pregnancy outcomes. None of the daughters had developed clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina or cervix uteri.

Amongst the sons, we discovered no evidence of any significant excess of genital tract disorders or of impaired reproductive performance in the treated group but one son developed a (fatal) teratoma of the testis.

Unexpectedly, psychiatric disease (especially depression and anxiety) was reported by general practitioners about twice as often in the treated group offspring (sons and daughters) as in the untreated group. This result cannot be due to bias, and is unlikely to be due to confounding or chance, and may thus represent an adverse effect of exposure to stilboestrol in utero.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Prenatal “female hormone” administration and psychosexual development in human males

Males were exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES) and/or to natural or synthetic progesterone

One of the first primary studies of DES sons which focused on their behavioral development , this study explored the hypothesis that prenatal DES exposure in males has feminizing effects.


Considerable data exist from animal research relating prenatal hormone levels to postnatal behaviors in the male. The data from human males are few. One strategy for testing this association is the study of humans exposed prenatally to exogenous ‘pregnancy maintaining hormones’.

Prenatal ‘female hormone’ administration and psychosexual development in human males, Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 5, Issue 4, 1980, Pages 269–285,, 1980.

Phallic Symbol credit Carol Fraser © all rights reserved.

Fifty-eight young adult males exposed to one of four hormone regimens were matched against nonhormone exposed controls. There were 17 males exposed to diethylstilbestrol (DES), 22 exposed to DES and natural progesterone, 10 to natural progesterone only, and 13 to synthetic progesterone.

Subjects were interviewed for various aspects of psychosexual development, and administered the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey (GZTS), the Strong Vocational Interest Blank (SVIB), and the Embedded Figures Test (EFT).

Drug, total dosage, and time of drug administration were significantly associated with several aspects of boyhood, adolescent, and adult psychosexual development on interview and with differences in scales of the psychometric tests.

The most contrasting boyhood behaviors were between those exposed to progesterone and DES. Progesterone subjects tended to recall boyhood behaviors which departed from the conventional male mode toward ‘femininity’. The DES subjects tended to recall the most conventionally ‘masculine’ boyhoods. During adulthood, DES plus natural progesterone subjects reported a high sex drive while synthetic progesterone subjects reported a low sex drive. Erectile failure was more often reported by subjects exposed to natural progesterone only.

Three drug regimens were associated with elevations of the Feminine scale of the BSRI and two with elevations of the feminine scale of the GZTS.

The rates of homosexual behavior were comparable for drug and non-drug-exposed subjects.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

In utero DES exposure effect on lumbar and femoral bone, articular cartilage, intervertebral disc


Developmental exposure to estrogens has been shown to affect the musculoskeletal system. Furthermore, recent studies have shown that environmental exposure to estrogen-like compounds is much higher than originally anticipated. The aim of this study was to determine the effects of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a well-known estrogen agonist, on articular cartilage, intervertebral disc (IVD), and bone phenotype.

C57Bl/6 pregnant mice were dosed orally with vehicle (peanut oil) or 0.1, 1.0, and 10 ?g/kg/day of DES on gestational days 11 to 14. Male and female pups were allowed to mature without further treatment until 3 months of age, when swim and sedentary groups were formed. After euthanasia, bone mineral density (BMD), bone mineral content (BMC), bone area (BA), and trabecular bone area (TBA) of the lumbar vertebrae and femur were measured by using a PIXImus Bone Densitometer System. Intervertebral disc proteoglycan was measured with the DMMB assay. Histologic analysis of proteoglycan for IVD and articular cartilage was performed with safranin O staining, and degeneration parameters were scored.

Effect of in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol on lumbar and femoral bone, articular cartilage, and the intervertebral disc in male and female adult mice progeny with and without swimming exercise, Arthritis research and therapy, NCBI PubMed PMID: 22269139, 2012 Jan.

The lumbar BMC was significantly increased in female swimmers at both the highest and lowest dose of DES, whereas the femoral BMC was increased only at the highest. The males, conversely, showed a decreased BMC at the highest dose of DES for both lumbar and femoral bone. The female swim group had an increased BA at the highest dose of DES, whereas the male counterpart showed a decreased BA for femoral bone. The TBA showed a similar pattern. Proteoglycan analysis of lumbar IVDs showed a decrease at the lowest doses but a significant increase at the highest doses for both males and females. Histologic examination showed morphologic changes of the IVD and articular cartilage for all doses of DES.

DES significantly affected the musculoskeletal system of adult mice. Results suggest that environmental estrogen contaminants can have a detrimental effect on the developmental lumbar bone growth and mineralization in mice. Further studies measuring the impact of environmental estrogen mimics, such as bisphenol A, are then warranted.

Click to download the full study PDF and figures.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Alterations in estrogen levels during development affects the skeleton: use of an animal model


Exposure to estrogens during various stages of development has been shown to irreversibly influence responsive target organs. The recent finding of the presence of estrogen receptor in both osteoblasts and osteoclasts has suggested a direct role of steroid hormones on bone tissue. Furthermore, estrogens have important effects on bone turnover in both humans and experimental animal models. Thus,  this tissue is now regarded as a specific estrogen target tissue.

Alterations in estrogen levels during development affects the skeleton: use of an animal model, Environmental Health Perspectives, NCBI PubMed PMC1518867, 1995 Oct.

To investigate whether a short-term developmental exposure to estrogens can influence bone tissue, we have injected female mice with diethylstilbestrol (DES) from day 1 through day 5 of life. Additionally, a group of pregnant female mice were injected with different doses of DES from day 9 through 16 of pregnancy. Mice were then weaned at 21 days of age, and effects on bone tissue of the female mice were evaluated in adulthood (7-12 months of age).

These short-term treatments did not affect body weight of exposed mice. However, a dose-dependent increase in bone mass, both in the trabecular and compact compartments, was observed in the DES-exposed female offspring. Furthermore, femurs from DES-exposed females were shorter than femurs from controls. A normal skeletal mineralization accompanied these changes in the bone tissue. In fact, a parallel increase in total calcium content of the skeleton was found in concomitance with the increase in bone mass. Estrogen treatment induced an increase in the amount of mineralized skeleton when compared to untreated controls.

In summary, this report shows that alterations of estrogen levels during development can influence the early phases of bone tissue development inducing permanent changes in the skeleton. These changes appear to be related to bone cell programming in early phases of life.


At the present time our result cannot either indicate or rule out any potential teratogenic or carcinogenic effect of the early exposure to DES in the skeleton of these female mice. It is interesting to know, however, that there have been a few self reports of spondylolisthesis in women exposed prenatally to DES (23). Thus, it may be clinically important to further investigate the possibility that exposure of the human population to exogenous estrogens could permanently affect skeletal tissue. In particular, it will be clinically relevent to evaluate whether low or high doses of these steroids could affect the skeleton in different manner, for instance increasing peak bone density or inducing skeletal malformations at higher doses. In conclusion, our results show for the first time that developmental exposure to estrogens during certain stages can permanently influence bone tissue in an animal model. The observed changes appear to be due to an effect on bone cell programming since differences in bone cell number and activity are retained through adulthood.

Click to download the full study PDF.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Alterations of maternal estrogen levels during gestation affect the skeleton of female offspring


Estrogens have important effects on bone turnover in both humans and experimental animals models. Moreover, the decreased level of estrogen after menopause appears to be one of the key factors in determining postmenopausal osteoporosis. The presence of estrogen receptor in both osteoblasts and osteoclasts has suggested a direct role of these steroid hormones on bone tissue. Thus, this tissue is now regarded as a specific estrogen target tissue. Exposure to estrogens during various stages of development has been shown to irreversibly influence responsive target organs. We have recently shown that transient developmental neonatal exposure (days 1-5 of life) of female mice to estrogen resulted in an augmented bone density in the adult animals.

The aim of the present study was to evaluate whether short-term modification of maternal estrogen levels during pregnancy would induce changes in the skeleton of the developing fetuses and to identify any long-term alterations that may occur.

Alterations of maternal estrogen levels during gestation affect the skeleton of female offspring, Endocrinology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 8612556, 1996 May.

Pregnant mice were injected with varying doses (0.1-100 micrograms/kg maternal BW) of the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) from day 9-16 of pregnancy. Offspring were weaned at 21 days of age, and effects on bone tissue of the female mice were evaluated in adulthood (6-9 months of age).

Prenatal DES treatment(s) did not significantly affect BW. However, a dose-dependent increase in bone mass, both in the trabecular and cortical compartments, was observed in the prenatal DES-exposed female offspring. Furthermore, long bones of DES-exposed females were shorter than controls. Normal skeletal mineralization accompanied these changes in the bone tissue, as shown by a parallel increase in skeletal calcium content. Double tetracycline labeling performed in 6-month-old DES-exposed animals showed an increase in mineral apposition rate in adult DES-exposed mice as compared with untreated control animals, although no significant difference in the circulating estrogen levels was found in animals of this age. Experiments were then performed to evaluate whether perturbation of the estrogen surge at puberty in these diethylstilbestrol (DES)-exposed mice could reverse the observed changes. Femur length was chosen as a marker of potential estrogenic effect. Prepubertal ovariectomy of the prenatally DES-treated animals could only partially reverse the effects observed in the skeleton of the DES-treated animals. Further experiments were performed to evaluate whether these changes could have occurred in utero. CD-1 pregnant female mice were injected with DES (100 micrograms/kg maternal BW) from days 9-15 of gestation. On day 16 of gestation, fetuses were examined and stained by a standard Alizarin Red S and Alcian Blue procedure to visualize calcified and uncalcified skeletal tissue. Estrogen treatment induced an increase in the amount of calcified skeleton as compared with untreated controls and also a decrease in the length of long bones, strongly suggesting a change in both endochondral ossification and endosteal and periosteal bone formation.

In summary, these data show, for the first time, that alterations in the maternal estrogenic levels during pregnancy can influence early phases of fetal bone tissue development and subsequently result in permanent changes in the skeleton. Finally, the effect of this short-term estrogen treatment can be seen in the fetal skeleton, suggesting an estrogen-imprinting effect on bone cell-programming in fetal life because treatment effects on bone cell turnover can be observed later in adult life.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

EDCs: The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Statement

Endocrine-Society banner
Five years after the Endocrine Society’s first Scientific Statement in 2009, a substantially larger body of literature has solidified our understanding of plausible mechanisms underlying EDC actions and how exposures in animals and humans-especially during development-may lay the foundations for disease later in life.


Executive Summary to EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, The Endocrine Society,, September 28, 2015.
Full study: EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals, The Endocrine Society,, November 06, 2015.

The Endocrine Society’s first Scientific Statement in 2009 provided a wake-up call to the scientific community about how environmental endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) affect health and disease.

Five years later, a substantially larger body of literature has solidified our understanding of plausible mechanisms underlying EDC actions and how exposures in animals and humans—especially during development—may lay the foundations for disease later in life. At this point in history, we have much stronger knowledge about how EDCs alter gene-environment interactions via physiological, cellular, molecular, and epigenetic changes, thereby producing effects in exposed individuals as well as their descendants. Causal links between exposure and manifestation of disease are substantiated by experimental animal models and are consistent with correlative epidemiological data in humans. There are several caveats because differences in how experimental animal work is conducted can lead to difficulties in drawing broad conclusions, and we must continue to be cautious about inferring causality in humans.

In this second Scientific Statement, we reviewed the literature on a subset of topics for which the translational evidence is strongest:

  1. obesity and diabetes;
  2. female reproduction;
  3. male reproduction;
  4. hormone-sensitive cancers in females;
  5. prostate;
  6. thyroid;
  7. and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems.

Our inclusion criteria for studies were those conducted predominantly in the past 5 years deemed to be of high quality based on appropriate negative and positive control groups or populations, adequate sample size and experimental design, and mammalian animal studies with exposure levels in a range that was relevant to humans. We also focused on studies using the developmental origins of health and disease model. No report was excluded based on a positive or negative effect of the EDC exposure. The bulk of the results across the board strengthen the evidence for endocrine health-related actions of EDCs. Based on this much more complete understanding of the endocrine principles by which EDCs act, including nonmonotonic dose-responses, low-dose effects, and developmental vulnerability, these findings can be much better translated to human health.

Armed with this information, researchers, physicians, and other healthcare providers can guide regulators and policymakers as they make responsible decisions.

Discussion (DES and Fertility-specific)

Diethylstilbestrol and beyond: perhaps the best-studied endocrine-based example is in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a potent synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen taken by pregnant women from the 1940s to 1975 to prevent miscarriage and other complications. DES was prescribed at doses from less than 100 mg (in most cases) upward to 47 000 mg, with a median dose of 3650 to 4000 mg in the United States (IARC 2012). Most women received low doses (ie, 5 mg) and increased their intake (up to 125 mg) as symptoms or pregnancy progressed, translating to doses of about 100 μg/kg to 2 mg/kg DES per day. In 1953, a study proved DES was ineffective. Its use was discontinued when a subset of exposed daughters presented with early-onset vaginal clear-cell adenocarcinoma, with a 40-fold increase in risk compared to unexposed individuals. A highly significant incidence ratio for clear-cell adenocarcinoma was also found in the Dutch DES cohort, a population that may have had lower exposures than US women. It was subsequently determined that exposed offspring of both sexes had increased risk for multiple reproductive disorders, certain cancers, cryptorchidism (boys), and other diseases, although the risk for sons is more controversial. New data are emerging to implicate increased disease risk in grandchildren. Not surprisingly, a plethora of examples is emerging for increased disease susceptibility later in life as a function of developmental exposures to EDCs that include BPA, phthalates, PCBs, pesticides, dioxins, and tributyltin (TBT), among others.

Epigenetics and transgenerational effects of EDCs: EDC-induced epigenetic changes are also influenced by dose of exposure, and they are tissue specific. Thus, it is important to consider both dose of EDC and the tissue before making firm conclusions about the epigenetic effects of EDCs. DNA methylation changes are the best-studied mechanism in this regard. For example, prenatal exposure to DES caused hypermethylation of the Hoxa10 gene in the uterus of mice and was linked to uterine hyperplasia and neoplasia later in life. Beyond the effects of prenatal exposure to DES on the daughters exposed in utero are suggestions that this leads to transgenerational effects of the chemical on the reproductive system, although whether this is linked to DNA methylation changes in humans is unknown.

Little is known about the ability of EDCs to cause histone modifications and whether this leads to transgenerational effects in animals or humans. The herbicides paraquat and dieldrin caused histone modifications in immortalized rat mesencephalic dopaminergic cells, and the insecticide propoxur causes histone modifications in gastric cells in vitro. DES caused histone deacetylation in the promoter region of the cytochrome P450 side chain cleavage (P450scc) gene. Further studies, however, need to be conducted to identify other EDCs causing histone modifications in animals and humans and to determine whether such modifications lead to transgenerational effects.

Female Reproductive Health: in the past 5 years, no new information became available on the effects of DES on the postnatal human ovary. Recent animal studies indicate that DES adversely affected the postnatal ovary. Neonatal exposure to DES inhibited germ cell nest breakdown (408) and caused the formation of polyovular follicles in mice, likely by interfering with the ERβ pathway and inhibiting programmed oocyte death and germ cell loss. It also reduced the primordial follicle pool and increased atresia in prepubertal lambs, and it caused polyovular ovaries in hamsters. Although these previous studies provide solid evidence that DES adversely affects ovarian structure in a variety of species, studies are needed to determine whether other synthetic estrogens adversely affect the ovary.

Effects of EDCs on uterine structure and function: synthetic estrogens are well known disruptors of uterine structure and function in humans and animals. Consistent with previous studies, recent data indicate that neonatal DES exposure caused endometrial hyperplasia/dysplasia in hamsters and increased uterine adenocarcinoma and uterine abnormalities in Donryu rats. Neonatal DES exposure also caused the differential expression of 900 genes in one or both layers of the uterus. Specifically, DES altered multiple factors in the PPARγ pathway that regulate adipogenesis and lipid metabolism, and it perturbed glucose homeostasis, suggesting that DES affects energy metabolism in the uterus. In the mouse uterus, DES altered the expression of chromatin-modifying proteins and Wnt signaling pathway members, caused epigenetic changes in the sine oculis homeobox 1 gene, and decreased the expression of angiogenic factors. DES also altered the expression of genes commonly involved in metabolism or endometrial cancer in mice, and it activated nongenomic signaling in uterine myometrial cells and increased the incidence of cystic glands in rats.

Effects of EDCs on the vagina: only a limited number of studies assessed the effects of EDCs on the vagina, and of these, all but one on phthalates focused on DES. A recent study of women showed an association between in utero exposure to DES and clear cell carcinoma of the vagina, confirming previous findings. Furthermore, DES disrupted the expression of transformation-related protein 63, which makes cell fate decisions of Müllerian duct epithelium and induces adenosis lesions in the cervix and vagina in women.

Studies in mice showed that DES induced vaginal adenosis by down-regulating RUNX1, which inhibits the BMP4/activin A-regulated vaginal cell fate decision; induced epithelial cell proliferation and inhibited stromal cell proliferation (520); and caused persistent down-regulation of basic-helix-loop-helix transcription factor expression (Hes1, Hey1, Heyl) in the vagina, leading to estrogen-independent epithelial cell proliferation. Neonatal exposure to DES caused persistent changes in expression of IGF-1 and its downstream signaling factors in mouse vaginas. It also up-regulated Wnt4, a factor correlated with the stratification of epithelial cells, in mouse vaginas. Interestingly, the simultaneous administration of vitamin D attenuated the ability of DES to cause hyperplasia of the vagina in neonatal mice.

In the one study in the previous 5 years that did not focus on DES, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate did not increase vaginal weight in Sprague-Dawley rats. Although a few studies have been conducted during the previous 5 years on the effects of EDCs on the vagina, such studies are very few in number, small in scope, and focused on DES. Thus, future studies are needed in this largely understudied area before we fully appreciate whether other EDCs impair the vagina.

Premature ovarian failure/early menopause: combined data from three studies on DES indicated that in utero exposure was associated with an increased lifetime risk of early menopause in women (602). However, animal studies have not determined whether DES exposure causes premature ovarian failure. Thus, future studies should focus on this issue.

Fibroids: a few recent studies confirmed the known association between DES exposure and fibroids. In the Sister Study, in utero exposure to DES was positively associated with early-onset fibroids. Similarly, in the Nurses’ Health Study II, prenatal DES exposure was associated with uterine fibroids, with the strongest risk being for women exposed to DES in the first trimester. Given the consistency in findings, future studies should be focused on determining the mechanism by which DES exposure increases the risk of fibroids.

Click to download the summary.
Click to download the full study.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

EDCs: an Endocrine Society Scientific Statement

EDC-statement banner
The group of molecules identified as endocrine disruptors include synthetic estrogens used as pharmaceutical agents such as Diethylstilbestrol DES.


Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, The Endocrine Society,, April 17, 2009.

There is growing interest in the possible health threat posed by endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which are substances in our environment, food, and consumer products that interfere with hormone biosynthesis, metabolism, or action resulting in a deviation from normal homeostatic control or reproduction.

In this first Scientific Statement of The Endocrine Society, we present the evidence that endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology.

Results from animal models, human clinical observations, and epidemiological studies converge to implicate EDCs as a significant concern to public health. The mechanisms of EDCs involve divergent pathways including (but not limited to) estrogenic, antiandrogenic, thyroid, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor ?, retinoid, and actions through other nuclear receptors; steroidogenic enzymes; neurotransmitter receptors and systems; and many other pathways that are highly conserved in wildlife and humans, and which can be modeled in laboratory in vitro and in vivo models. Furthermore, EDCs represent a broad class of molecules such as organochlorinated pesticides and industrial chemicals, plastics and plasticizers, fuels, and many other chemicals that are present in the environment or are in widespread use.

We make a number of recommendations to increase understanding of effects of EDCs, including enhancing increased basic and clinical research, invoking the precautionary principle, and advocating involvement of individual and scientific society stakeholders in communicating and implementing changes in public policy and awareness.

Discussion (DES and Fertility-specific)

General Introduction: the group of molecules identified as endocrine disruptors is highly heterogeneous and includes synthetic chemicals used as industrial solvents/lubricants and their byproducts [polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs), dioxins], plastics [bisphenol A (BPA)], plasticizers (phthalates), pesticides [methoxychlor, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT)], fungicides (vinclozolin), and pharmaceutical agents [diethylstilbestrol (DES)].

Effects on the postnatal ovary: In the past 5 years, no new information became available on the effects of DES on the postnatal human ovary. Recent animal studies indicate that DES adversely affected the postnatal ovary. Neonatal exposure to DES inhibited germ cell nest breakdown (408) and caused the formation of polyovular follicles in mice, likely by interfering with the ERβ pathway and inhibiting programmed oocyte death and germ cell loss. It also reduced the primordial follicle pool and increased atresia in prepubertal lambs, and it caused polyovular ovaries in hamsters (410). Although these previous studies provide solid evidence that DES adversely affects ovarian structure in a variety of species, studies are needed to determine whether other synthetic estrogens adversely affect the ovary.

Reproduction: in the adult female, the first evidence of endocrine disruption was provided almost 40 yr ago through observations of uncommon vaginal adenocarcinoma in daughters born 15–22 yr earlier to women treated with the potent synthetic estrogen DES during pregnancy. Subsequently, DES effects and mechanisms have been substantiated in animal models. Thus, robust clinical observations together with experimental data support the causal role of DES in female reproductive disorders. However, the link between disorders such as premature pubarche and EDCs is so far indirect and weak, based on epidemiological association with both IUGR and ovulatory disorders. The implications of EDCs have been proposed in other disorders of the female reproductive system, including disorders of ovulation and lactation, benign breast disease, breast cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.

In the case of DES, there are both human and experimental observations indicating heritability.

Premature ovarian failure, decreased ovarian reserve, aneuploidy, granulosa steroidogenesis: interestingly, mice exposed in utero to DES, between d 9–16 gestation, have a dose-dependent decrease in reproductive capacity, including decreased numbers of litters and litter size and decreased numbers of oocytes (30%) ovulated in response to gonadotropin stimulation with all oocytes degenerating in the DES-exposed group, as well as numerous reproductive tract anatomic abnormalities. In women with in utero exposure to DES, Hatch et al reported an earlier age of menopause between the 43–55 yr olds, and the average age of menopause was 52.2 yr in unexposed women and 51.5 yr in exposed women. The effect of DES increased with cumulative doses and was highest in a cohort of highest in utero exposure during the 1950s. These observations are consistent with a smaller follicle pool and fewer oocytes ovulated, as in DES-exposed mice after ovulation induction.

Reproductive tract anomalies: disruption of female reproductive tract development by the EDC DES is well documented. A characteristic T-shaped uterus, abnormal oviductal anatomy and function, and abnormal cervical anatomy are characteristic of thisin utero exposure, observed in adulthood, as well as in female fetuses and neonates exposed in utero to DES. Some of these effects are believed to occur through ER? and abnormal regulation of Hox genes. Clinically, an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, preterm delivery, miscarriage, and infertility all point to the devastating effect an endocrine disruptor may have on female fertility and reproductive health. It is certainly plausible that other EDCs with similar actions as DES could result in some cases of unexplained infertility, ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and premature deliveries. Although another major health consequence of DES exposurein utero was development of rare vaginal cancer in DES daughters, this may be an extreme response to the dosage of DES or specific to pathways activated by DES itself. Other EDCs may not result in these effects, although they may contribute to the fertility and pregnancy compromises cited above. Of utmost importance clinically is the awareness of DES exposure (and perhaps other EDC exposures) and appropriate physical exam, possible colposcopy of the vagina/cervix, cervical and vaginal cytology annually, and careful monitoring for fertility potential and during pregnancy for ectopic gestation and preterm delivery.

Endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent gynecological disorder associated with pelvic pain and infertility. There are suggestive animal data of adult exposure to EDCs and development of or exacerbation of existing disease, and there is evidence that in utero exposure in humans to DES results in an increased relative risk = 1.9 (95% confidence interval, 1.2–2.8).

Environmental estrogens effects on the prostate: DES exposure is an important model of endocrine disruption and provides proof-of-principle for exogenous estrogenic agents altering the function and pathology of various end-organs. Maternal usage of DES during pregnancy resulted in more extensive prostatic squamous metaplasia in human male offspring than observed with maternal estradiol alone. Although this prostatic metaplasia eventually resolved during postnatal life, ectasia and persistent distortion of ductal architecture remained. These findings have led to the postulation that men exposed in utero to DES may be at increased risk for prostatic disease later in life, although the limited population studies conducted to date have not identified an association. Nonetheless, several studies with DES in mouse and rat models have demonstrated significant abnormalities in the adult prostate, including increased susceptibility to adult-onset carcinogenesis after early DES exposures. It is important to note that developmental exposure to DES, as with other environmental estrogens, has been shown to exhibit a biphasic dose- response curve with regard to several end-organ responses, and this has been shown to be true for prostatic responses as well. Low-dose fetal exposure to DES or BPA (see full study) resulted in larger prostate size in adulthood compared with controls, an effect associated with increased levels of prostatic ARs. This contrasts with smaller prostate sizes, dysplasia, and aging- associated increases in carcinogenesis found after perinatal high-dose DES exposures as noted above. This differential prostatic response to low vs. high doses of DES and other EDCs must be kept in mind when evaluating human exposures to EDCs because the lack of a response at high doses may not translate into a lack of negative effects at low, environmentally relevant doses of EDCs.

Linking basic research to clinical practice: it should be clear from this Scientific Statement that there is considerable work to be done. A reconciliation of the basic experimental data with observations in humans needs to be achieved through translation in both directions, from bench to bedside and from bedside (and populations) to bench. An example of how human observation and basic research have successfully converged was provided by DES exposure in humans, which revealed that the human syndrome is faithfully replicated in rodent models. Furthermore, we now know that DES exposure in key developmental life stages can have a spectrum of effects spanning female reproduction, male reproduction, obesity, and breast cancer. It is interesting that in the case of breast cancer, an increased incidence is being reported now that the DES human cohort is reaching the age of breast cancer prevalence. The mouse model predicted this outcome 25 yr before the human data became available. In the case of reproductive cancers, the human and mouse data have since been confirmed in rats, hamsters, and monkeys. This is a compelling story from the perspective of both animal models and human exposures on the developmental basis of adult endocrine disease.

Prevention and the “precautionary principle”: although more experiments are being performed to find the hows and whys, what should be done to protect humans? The key to minimizing morbidity is preventing the disorders in the first place. However, recommendations for prevention are difficult to make because exposure to one chemical at a given time rarely reflects the current exposure history or ongoing risks of humans during development or at other life stages, and we usually do not know what exposures an individual has had in utero or in other life stages.

In the absence of direct information regarding cause and effect, the precautionary principle is critical to enhancing reproductive and endocrine health. As endocrinologists, we suggest that The Endocrine Society actively engages in lobbying for regulation seeking to decrease human exposure to the many endocrine-disrupting agents. Scientific societies should also partner to pool their intellectual resources and to increase the ranks of experts with knowledge about EDCs who can communicate to other researchers, clinicians, community advocates, and politicians.

Click to download the full study.

More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources

Relationship between DES exposure in utero and male infertility

In this 1981 study, 80% of the DES-exposed males qualified as infertile and demonstrated at least one abnormality of the reproductive organs.


Possible relationship between in utero diethylstilbestrol exposure and male fertility, American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, NCBI PubMed PMID: 7234914, 1981 May.

Seventeen men who were exposed in utero to diethylstilbestrol (DES), 12 non-DES-exposed volunteers, and 11 fertile control subjects were evaluated by physical examination, seminal fluid analysis, and sperm penetration assay (SPA).

  • Fourteen of the 17 male subjects exposed to DES in utero and two of the 12 non-DES-exposed volunteers had SPAs of less than 14% and qualified as infertile by the criteria of this test.
  • All 11 fertile control subjects had demonstrated SPA values in the fertile range.
  • Thirteen of the 17 DES-exposed male subjects, four of the 12 non-DES-exposed volunteers, and four of the 11 fertile control subjects demonstrated at least one abnormality of the reproductive organs.
More DES DiEthylStilbestrol Resources