Phthalates are chemical plasticizers that have been widely used since the 1950’s to soften plastics that would otherwise be brittle and crack when bent. In personal care products, they are used to help lubricate, to help lotions penetrate, and to help fragrances last longer.
Why are phthalates dangerous?
Phthalates are easily absorbed into the bloodstream, and they are present nearly everywhere that plastic is found. Recent studies have implicated phthalates in birth abnormalities and reduced sperm counts. The possible link between phthalates and asthma is now being studied, as well as their influence on the timing of puberty and the risk of childhood obesity.
Where are phthalates found?
In personal care items, toys, electronics and household products, such as plastic wrap, plastic water bottles and plastic containers. In personal care products, they may not be listed on the label, since they are frequently included in “fragrance” added. Fragrance ingredients are not required by law to be listed.
The most common phthalates:
- DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
- DEP (diethyl phthalate)
- DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
How are plasticizers absorbed by our bodies?
- Ingestion. Plastic teeters, squeeze toys or bath books, if made of soft plastic, may contain phthalates. When babies put them in their mouths, they are vulnerable to ingesting the phthalates. Polymer clay, made to be formed, then baked, is made with PVC. When children play with it and then put their fingers in their mouths, they are at risk for ingestion of chemicals.
- Absorption. Phthalates are found in many cosmetic and scented products, such as deodorants, nail polish, hair spray, perfumes, and some lotions and creams. The chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. We all know we must read the ingredients list on labels (right?) Still phthalates are often buried in the word ‘fragrance’, which is exempt from the rule that requires listing all ingredients. Buyer beware.
- Inhalation. Dust or fumes from any products containing pvc or vinyl, such as vinyl flooring, seating in cars, some diaper-changing mats. These fumes are known as off-gassing. New vinyl products should be well aired (24 hours or more) before use.
What can we do?
- Choose detergents, cleansers and personal care products that are ‘fragrance free’.
- Visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website to find safer products.
- Use glass or stainless steel instead of plastic for water or baby bottles and storage containers. Take care when using glass.
- Don’t microwave food in plastic containers. Use glass or ceramic. (In fact, try not to use the microwave)
- Avoid canned foods, as plastic linings can leach phthalates into the food.
- Avoid vinyl products, especially baby items, like teethers, pacifiers or toys.
- Instead of polymer clay, use homemade playdoughs and modeling clays
- When painting, look for natural house paints, or if not available, make sure the room is well-ventilated.
- Keep dust minimal, to avoid airborne chemicals
- Wherever possible, choose natural products and packaging.
- Read the fine print on personal care products. Choose those that are phthalate-free.
Results show higher prenatal exposures to two of the phthalates significantly delayed the odds of motor development and the potential of future problems with fine and gross motor coordination. One of the phthalates appeared to cause significant decreases in mental development in girls, while exposure to three of the chemicals were associated with behavioral problems in both the sexes. These included anxiety, depression and withdrawal behavior.
Research has also indicated phthalates were responsible for genital malformations in baby boys and reduces the semen count and quality in adults. The chemical industry has attempted to block the release of the EPA’s proposed list. The EPA maintains these chemicals present or may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment.