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What are phthalates and how are they used?
Phthalates (pronounced "thah-lates") are chemical plasticizers that have been widely used since the 1950s to soften plastics that would otherwise be brittle and crack when bent. Because phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastics they're added to, they're continuously released into the air or food or liquid. Did you ever notice how plastic sometimes hardens over time? That's because the phthalates have leached out of it.
Phthalates are found in an amazing array of products. In personal care items, they're used to help lubricate other substances, help lotions penetrate and soften the skin, and help fragrances last longer. They're also used in toys, electronics (such as personal computers), car-care products, insecticides, and many household products, including adhesives, plastic wrap, plastic containers, flooring, furniture, wallpaper, shower curtains, and other things made of vinyl or PVC.
Here's a list of the most common phthalates, which may come in handy for checking labels:
- DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
- DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
- DiNP (diisononyl phthalate)
- DEP (diethyl phthalate)
- BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate)
- DEHP (di 2-ethylhexl phthalate)
- DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate)
- DnHP (di-n-hexyl phthalate)
- DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
- DnOP (di-n-octylphthalate)
- Bisphenol A (BPA) is another plasticizer.
How do plasticizers get into our bodies?
Plasticizers are all around us, and adults and children have many opportunities to absorb them. "Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems," says Sheela Sathyanarayana, an acting assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington and lead author of a study that looked at phthalate exposure via baby care products.
Here's how we're all exposed:
Ingestion. When a baby sucks or chews on an object that contains plasticizers (like a teether, squeeze toy, or bath book), or a young child handles it and then sucks his fingers, the chemicals can end up in the child's body. Because babies suck on and put things in their mouth routinely, they're especially vulnerable to ingesting phthalates.
Trying to keep your baby from putting things in his mouth is not a good solution – it's one of the ways he learns about his world, and it's developmentally important. Instead, parents can remove potentially harmful objects from their baby's reach, and make sure that toys and other objects that are meant to be mouthed are perfectly safe.
Older children also ingest plasticizers when they play with things that contain phthalates and then put their hands in their mouth. Polymer clays (a modeling compound designed to remain pliable until baked in a home oven) are one example. These clays are routinely sold for use by children and are made primarily with PVC plastics.
We also ingest plasticizers by eating food that's been contaminated via certain food packaging or by drinking beverages from plastic bottles that leach the chemical into the food or liquid.
Absorption. Phthalates are found in many scented and cosmetic products, where they stabilize the fragrance, increase spreadability, and enhance absorption. So you'll find them in deodorants, nail polish (where they help prevent chipping), hair spray (where they prevent stiffness), perfumes, lotions, creams, and powders (including baby lotions, creams, and powders). The chemicals from these products can be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream.
In 2002, a coalition of public health and environmental groups tested 72 name-brand, off-the-shelf cosmetics for phthalates. They found that nearly three-quarters of the products contained the plasticizers. And when the CDC tested phthalate levels in humans, it found the highest levels in women of childbearing age, presumably because of their use of cosmetics.
In a study published in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Washington's Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Rochester found that babies whose mom had recently applied infant care products like baby lotion, shampoo, and powder were more likely to have phthalates in their urine than babies whose mom didn't use these products.
Exposure to phthalates is also a common part of any hospital stay. Many medical devices, such as catheters and IV equipment, are made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride or vinyl) – even the ones used in the NICU and other baby and child care areas. Because phthalates can leach out of the devices into stored liquids, like blood, plasma, and intravenous fluid, the FDA recommended in 2002 that healthcare providers avoid using intravenous bags, tubes, and other devices containing the phthalate DEHP when treating premature babies and women who are pregnant with male fetuses. Accordingly, some hospitals are now phasing phthalate-containing PVC out of neonatal intensive care units.
Inhalation. Phthalates can be breathed in from dust or fumes from any products that contain vinyl, such as vinyl flooring, vinyl seating (in cars, for example), and some diaper-changing mats. The production of fumes by these products is called off-gassing.
Phthalates are a concern for adults, too, of course. In addition, phthalates can cross the placenta, so they can be passed to a baby during pregnancy when the mother is exposed. And they can be transmitted through breast milk, so it's important to learn how to limit a mom's exposure in order to protect her baby. (Breast milk is still the best food for babies. Phthalates are not a reason to curtail breastfeeding, but they are a reason for moms to read labels.)
Are phthalates dangerous?
The question is being debated. The evidence available so far is based on animal studies, and no extensive, conclusive human study has been conducted. Most experts agree that many findings from the numerous animal studies that have been done may be relevant to humans – and that more research is needed.
"The animal studies suggest there is a potential for phthalates to impact birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, fertility (lower sperm production), and anatomical abnormalities related to the male genitalia," says Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and director of the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in New York City.
"Human studies are now looking at the relationship between phthalates and asthma. There are also studies examining whether phthalates influence the timing of puberty or the risk for childhood obesity." (While phthalates have been shown to cause kidney and liver cancers in animal studies, the mechanism involved isn't likely to be relevant to humans, says Galvez.)
In a study at Mount Sinai, Galvez and others are examining the impact of exposure to plasticizers on the timing of puberty in girls in New York City. "These studies will give us a better understanding of how early life exposures may influence later risk for development of health conditions such as breast cancer," explains Galvez.
Editor's note August 2018: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents reduce their children's exposure to phthalates due to the potential for endocrine system disruption.
What can I do to protect my family?
Here are some concrete steps you can take to limit your child's (and your own) exposure to phthalates from various sources:
To minimize exposure via absorption:
Limit the amount of baby care products you use on your baby, especially if he's 8 months or younger. For parents who want to limit phthalate exposure, Sathyanarayana recommends using these products only if "medically indicated" – in the case of diaper rash or eczema, for example. (Researchers found that diaper creams did not cause an increase in phthalates. Santhyanarayana suggests this may be because they're designed to sit on top of the skin and act as a barrier rather than be absorbed, like lotions.)
When you do use baby care products, choose products that are phthalate-free. Unfortunately it's not always easy to tell from the list of ingredients. Manufacturers aren't required to list phthalates separately, so they may be included under the term "fragrance." You might want to call the manufacturer or visit the company's website.
Because phthalates are added to containers to make them more flexible and durable, and because the chemical can leach from the container into the product, you'll also want to determine whether the product's container is phthalate-free. Many – but not all – "natural" body care manufacturers are conscientious about this, but you'll need to find out specifically from the company.
Sathyanarayana cautions that some products labeled phthalate-free were tested and shown to have phthalates in them, though at much lower concentrations than products not labeled phthalate-free. "I think it's really difficult to know what is in any of these products," she says. Still, she says, if you want to reduce phthalate exposure, those labeled "phthalate-free" would certainly be preferable.
Choose personal care products, detergents, and cleansers without phthalates or the word "fragrance" on the label. Again, manufacturers are not required to list phthalates on labels; they may be included under "fragrance." Of course, not all products that contain "fragrance" contain phthalates, but there's no way for you to tell simply by reading the label.
In addition to researching specific products and manufacturers, you can visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website, which lists many specific brand-name products and whether they contain phthalates.
To minimize exposure via ingestion:
Use glass and stainless steel instead of plastic (for water bottles, storage containers, and baby bottles, for example). You'll need to use extra caution with glass to prevent breakage, of course.
When you do buy plastic bottles (baby and water bottles, for example), look for bottles that are phthalate-free. Some of these products are marketed as such. And new corn-based plastics are now being marketed. These are called polylactides (PLA), and – because they're completely biodegradable and considered free of chemical leaching dangers – many natural-foods stores and manufacturers have started using them.
Also check the bottom of plastic bottles and choose those labeled #1, 2, 4, or 5, which are generally considered safer. Plastics labeled #3 may leach phthalates. (Number 7 plastics may leach BPA and #6 may leach styrene. Neither of those is desirable, either.) Plastics made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are safer than those made of PVC. ("PET" or "HDPE" may be printed on the bottom of the bottle.)
Don't microwave food in plastic, and don't put plastic containers in the dishwasher. High temperatures cause the chemicals to leach out of the plastics.
Choose alternatives to canned foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables and those in glass containers. (BPA may be leached from the lining of canned goods.) Avoid canned infant formulas; breastfeed or use powdered formula instead.
Don't give your child polymer clays to play with. There are plenty of recipes for making your own modeling clay.
Don't buy vinyl (PVC, polyvinyl chloride) products, especially when those products will wind up in your baby's mouth in the form of teethers, pacifiers, or toys. Instead, choose items made from natural products when possible. When you do buy plastics, look for those made of polyethylene or polypropylene plastics rather than vinyl or PVC.
When you buy food such as cheese or meat wrapped in plastic, slice or scrape off a thin layer before serving.
To minimize inhaling phthalates:
When painting or using other solvents, be sure the space is well ventilated – and that your child is elsewhere. Most paints contain DBP (dibutyl phthalate) to give them better spreadability. Look for natural paints without this ingredient.
Choose non-vinyl shower curtains, raincoats, lawn furniture, and building materials whenever possible. The chemical off-gassing from these products introduces phthalates to your environment.
Clean. Phthalates can wind up airborne and in the dust in your home. Wet mopping can help eliminate the chemical.
Avoid air fresheners. Most air fresheners (even if labeled "fragrance free") contain phthalates. Open the windows or use a natural air refresher instead. You can even make your own simply by adding a few drops of a pure essential oil to a spray bottle of water.
What's being done about this?
European governments have restricted the use of phthalates in some baby products, cosmetics, and plastics designed to come into contact with food.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has reviewed the same evidence viewed by the EU but felt it was incomplete and left the decision up to manufacturers, many of whom voluntarily removed phthalates from items typically mouthed by babies such as teething rings, pacifiers, nipples, and some toys. This has been a voluntary measure, however. And if you're a parent, you know that a baby doesn't distinguish between "toy" and "not toy" when it comes to putting things in his mouth.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded – after reviewing the safety and toxicity data – that there was not enough damaging evidence to require regulatory action concerning phthalates. The FDA does require retail cosmetic products to list ingredients on the label. Individual fragrance ingredients don't have to be listed, however. So if a product contains "fragrance" as an ingredient, it may also contain phthalates without specifying them. Also, cosmetics products sold in beauty sales and to professionals don't have to declare ingredients on their label.
Much as it did when it took a stand on automotive emissions and fuel standards in the past, California was the first state to enact a ban on phthalates. This ban, effective in 2009, will prohibit the manufacture, sale, and distribution of products containing more than one-tenth of 1 percent of any of six phthalates in all toys and child care products made for children younger than 3 years old.
Other states are considering similar legislation. Meanwhile, the California ban is being challenged in the state's Superior Court in San Francisco by four trade organizations, including the American Chemistry Council, which assert that phthalates are consumed at such low levels that these products are safe.
If you're concerned, let lawmakers know that you want potentially unsafe products to be tested and restricted. Ask them to regulate the use of toxic chemicals like phthalates in cosmetics and baby care products, toys, and other items. Tell them you want manufacturers to be required to list phthalate contents of products so that parents can make informed decisions.
Read what the industry has to say in defense of the safety of phthalates.
And for more information on phthalates, visit the following websites: