Back in the 1940s and until 1971, women took a synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages and other pregnancy complications. As a result, millions of babies were exposed to DES in utero with profound health consequences.
Now, a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine quantifies the magnitude of that impact. Government researchers analyzed data from three studies that began in the 1970s, looking at 12 health risks in 4,600 women who were exposed to DES in utero and compared them to 1,900 women who were not.
Investigators found that exposed women had higher rates of infertility (33% vs. 16%), miscarriage (50% vs. 39%) and premature delivery (53% vs. 18%) than unexposed women. In addition, they were more likely to develop preeclampsia (26% vs. 14%), miscarry in the second trimester (16% vs. 2%), and experience early menopause (5% vs. 2%). DES daughters also had a slightly higher risk for breast cancer after age 40 (4% vs. 2%).
Little can be done now to undo this public health disaster. Researchers plan to follow these women through menopause and study their daughters to see whether the impact will affect future generations.