In my continuing series on toxic ingredients in our food and personal care products, this time I wanted to talk about phthalates. Phthalates are mainly used as plasticizers (which are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability) in products such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) shower curtains, baby toys, enteric coatings of pills, paint, floor tiles, makeup, hair spray, food containers, nail polish, liquid soap – the list goes on and on. Becoming popular in the 1930’s, phthalates are in many products that we come into contact with on a daily basis. As with most chemical compounds at one time or another, most everyone thought phthalates were inert and harmless, but we are now finding out quite the opposite.
According to studies done by the Environmental Working Group, phthalates have been found to “disrupt the endocrine system, reduce sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals, and some studies also link phthalates to liver cancer”. And scientists at the University of Rochester have found that phthalates tend to “feminize” boys, altering their brains to express more feminine characteristics. In China, researchers found that female rats given phthalates “gave birth to males with a penis deformity in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis, not the tip”. Sure sounds safe to me. And ever since they have started doing research on phthalates, they have found that dibutyl phthalate was present in the bodies of every single person tested for industrial pollutants.
Phthalate exposure, and the resulting endocrine system disruption, could also be part of the obesity epidemic that many first world countries are starting to face. In 2007 a study of U.S. males concluded that urine concentrations of four phthalate metabolites correlate with waist size and three phthalate metabolites correlate with the cellular resistance to insulin, a precursor to Type II diabetes.
In July 2008, Congress passed legislation banning or limiting the use of six phthalates – DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP, DnOP – saying that “it shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture for sale, offer for sale, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any children’s toy or child care article that contains concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of DEHP, DBP, or BBP and it shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture for sale, offer for sale, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any children’s toy that can be placed in a child’s mouth or child care article that contains concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of DINP, DIDP, DnOP”. However, phthalates are still found in tons of products that we are exposed to on a daily basis, and as plastics age and break down the release of phthalates accelerates – increasing our exposure even more. So be on the lookout for products with any version of the term “phthalates” in the ingredients, and try your best to avoid anything made from or containing PVC – which are typically marked with a Type 3 plastic recycling code.