Phthalates are widely used chemicals that make plastics more flexible. Products such as your shower curtain, food packaging, vinyl gloves and vinyl flooring contain phthalates. These chemicals are also in your household cleaners, cosmetics and personal care products.
Although phthalates help plastics to be more durable and flexible, they are not strongly bound to the product, so with heat and use, they leach out and dissipate into your environment.
Have you noticed how your flexible plastics can get harder and more brittle over time? That’s because the plasticizer, or phthalates, is continuously released, changing the chemical composition of the product.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges that your risk of exposure comes from eating and drinking foods exposed to plastics and breathing phthalate in dust particles.
In fact, phthalates are so common that researchers have found metabolites of phthalates in the general population and consider exposure to people living in the U.S. widespread.1
At the urging of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), American manufacturers have not put phthalates in children’s pacifiers, soft rattles and teething toys since 1999.2
Phthalates are “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), but continue to be used in many products you use every day.3
You May Ingest Phthalates With Your Meals
In an effort to evaluate your risk of exposure to phthalates from food, researchers evaluated the dietary habits and urinary metabolites of 9,000 participants age 6 and older.4 This news video highlights the results of the study. The researchers were specifically looking at fast food or take out foods.
They used the CDC definition for fast foods as those from restaurants without waiter services and pizza restaurants, including take-out.
They discovered that the majority of people who were more likely to eat fast foods were non-Hispanic black males under age 40.5 This population also ate more calories and more fat each day from fast food restaurants.6
Those who ate at fast food restaurants had a greater excretion of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP) than those who did not consume fast foods. The authors pointed to PVC tubing, vinyl gloves and food packaging as potential sources of phthalates found in foods.
Although DEHP has been removed from some products related to health concerns, it is being replaced with another source of phthalates, DiNP.7
The study evaluated exposure and not the potential negative health effects. They found a dose-related relationship between the amount of fast food participants were eating and the amount of phthalates to which they were exposed.
Those who ate the most fast food had 23 percent higher DEHP and 39 percent higher DiNP levels.8 They did not find evidence of increased bisphenol A (BPA).
When the researchers evaluated the type of phthalates absorbed with the type of food ingested they found those who ate more grains and foods in the “other” category, such as condiments, potatoes and vegetables from fast food restaurants, had a greater amount of DEHP in their system.
Those who had more DiNP metabolites were eating a greater amount of meat and grains.9
Phthalates Are Industrial Strength Hormone Disruptors
The dangers associated with phthalates are related to their effect on your hormonal system. They are remarkably powerful hormone disruptors, and recent research confirms they’re capable of causing males in all species to develop feminine characteristics.10
Although this study evaluated damage to the reproductive health of wildlife, the results are relevant to humans, as we share similar sex hormone receptors.
The chemicals disrupted the endocrine systems causing testicular cancer, low sperm counts, genital malformations and infertility in a number of species, including deer, whales, otters and bears, to name a few. This infertility and feminization may indicate a similar pattern taking place in humans.
In a study published by the American Chemical Society (ACS), researchers found that pregnant women who were exposed to phthalates found in food packaging, personal care items and other everyday products, experienced an increased risk of miscarriage between 5 and 13 weeks of pregnancy.11
Further studies demonstrate exposure to phthalates during pregnancy may increase the risk of adversely affecting the masculinization of male genitals in your baby.12 The results were presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the Endocrine Society.
Researchers suggest the results may be a reason to look closely at clinical testing in early pregnancy for levels of chemicals to help guide interventions to protect your baby. Jennifer Adibi, Sc.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Pittsburgh School of Public Health was quoted in the press release saying:13
“Phthalates are pervasive. Reducing exposure to phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals is something that needs to be addressed at a societal level through consumer advocacy and regulation, and education of health care providers.”
Phthalates Have Other Negative Health Effects
A research team from Columbia University found pregnant women with high levels of phthalates delivered babies who had a higher risk of developing asthma between the ages of 5 and 11.14
Since every woman in the U.S. is exposed to phthalates, researchers were forced to compare women with the highest levels of phthalates to those with the lowest, as they did not find anyone with a zero level.
Every woman in the study had metabolites of both types of phthalates being tested. Despite that, children of women with the highest levels had between a 72 and 78 percent greater chance of developing asthma.15
During pregnancy an increased exposure to phthalates may alter the production of thyroid hormones in your unborn child,16 which are crucial for the proper development of your baby during your first trimester.
Other complications found in women with high levels of DEHP during pregnancy included twice the likelihood a male child would develop a hydrocele, a buildup of fluid in the scrotum that increases the size of the scrotum and causes discomfort.17
Phthalates Linked to Low Vitamin D Levels
Phthalates also have negative health effects on adults. One of the first studies to link low vitamin D levels to an increased intake of phthalates was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.18 Researchers are calling this study very important as vitamin D is essential for brain, bone and heart heath.
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to a number of different health conditions, including depression,19,20 mental decline in older adults21 and chronic migraine headaches,22 to name just a few. This study followed over 4,600 participants between 2005 and 2010 in a national health survey. The researchers had data from urine and blood samples, which they compared against exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) and vitamin D levels.
Lead author Lauren Johns, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, believes the results of this study have widespread implications, as EDCs in the U.S. are pervasive. The authors are not sure how the chemicals affect vitamin D deficiency, but believe they may alter vitamin D levels in the same way they change thyroid and reproductive hormones.
Widespread use of phthalate chemicals makes it difficult to reduce your exposure. Recent studies have demonstrated that while exposure to DEHP and di-n-butylphthalate (DnBP) are declining with reduced use in children’s toys and other plastic materials, exposure to replacement phthalates is increasing.23 Chemicals replacing DEHP and DnBP are associated with very similar health effects.
US Food and Drug Administration Called to Reconsider Approval of Phthalates in Food Products
In early 2016, several public health and consumer groups strongly urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to withdraw their approval of ortho-phthalates used in food handling and packaging.24 The petition filed with the government lists these chemicals as food additives, as the FDA considers any chemicals that may be reasonably expected to be found in your food an additive.
Food producers use these chemicals in paperboard, cellophane and plastics that come in contact with the food. Earth Justice was one of the organizations behind the citizen petition to the FDA. Following a plea to their followers, the FDA received nearly 200,000 letters urging them to withdraw the chemicals, citing concern for their health and the health of their children.25
Despite the overwhelming demonstration of toxic effects phthalates have on adults, children and developing babies, the use of these EDCs in plastics and products that come in contact with food is perfectly legal. The FDA was accepting letters of concern from the public until September 19, 2016.26
If the FDA decides to withdraw approval for these 30 different ortho-phthalates from products used in food packaging and handling, manufacturers will be forced to redesign their products and machinery. This effects more than the fast food industry as phthalates can be found in dairy products and cheeses you purchase from the grocery store, as well as meats and olive oil.27,28
What You Can Do to Avoid Toxic Chemicals
To limit your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), keep the following guidelines in mind when shopping for food, personal care and household products.
|Avoid fast-food restaurant fare and processed goods. Eating a diet focused on locally grown, ideally organic and whole foods cooked from scratch will significantly limit your exposure to not only phthalates and BPA but also a wide array of other chemicals, including synthetic food additives and pesticides.
||Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Besides phthalates, avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
|Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans; be aware that even “BPA-free” plasticstypically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
||Switch to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics.
EWG’s Skin Deep database29 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
|Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap as it too contains phthalates that can migrate into your food (especially if you microwave food wrapped in plastic).
||Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or glass doors.
|Use glass baby bottles and drinking bottles.
||Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
|Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants.
Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for DEHP of 0.006 mg/dL, or 6 ppb.30
Note that the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates DEHP levels only for public water supplies, not for well water.
|Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrancecan contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals, including phthalates.
Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.
|If you have PVC pipes, you may have DEHP leaching into your water supply. If you have PVC pipe from before 1977, you will definitely want to upgrade to a newer material.
This “early-era” PVC pipe can leach a carcinogenic compound called vinyl chloride monomer into your water. Alternatives to PVC for water piping include ductile iron, high-density polyethylene, concrete, copper and PEX.31
|Consider replacing vinyl flooring with a “greener” material. Also avoid soft, flexible plastic flooring, such as those padded play-mat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens), as there’s a good chance it is made from phthalate-containing PVC.
|Read the labels and avoid anything containing phthalates. Besides DEHP, also look for DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), BzBP (benzyl butyl phthlate) and DMP (dimethyl phthalate).
Also be wary of anything listing a “fragrance,” which often includes phthalates.
|Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.