Phthalates? What phthalates? Well, for starters, these phthalates commonly found in certain plastics...
di 2-ethylhexl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP) and di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP)
The complex chemical names may not mean much to you, but the point is that these six toxic synthetic phthalate chemicals are just the tip of the phthalate iceberg - there are many phthalates in everyday life - and they have been banned to varying degrees from children's products in Canada, Europe, the United States and other parts of the world (in Europe they are also banned from cosmetics).
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are a class of human-made chemicals derived from phthalic acid, which is made from napthalene, of moth ball fame - you'll remember that chemical moth ball smell, well, it's the smell of carcinogenic napthalene, which certainly kills moths, but is also toxic to humans.
Phthalates are essentially an additive to products, usually as a plasticizer (they give a plastic its soft flexible qualities) or as a solvent used to dissolve and carry fragrances in cosmetic and personal care products. Chemically, part of the problem with phthalates is that they are generally not firmly attached to the polymer backbone of a plastic molecule, so they very easily migrate to the surface of the product and leach out, for example, into food if the product is a plastic food container.
Where are they found?
In the plastics realm, phthalates are most commonly found in the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), designated plastic #3 by its recycling resin identification code (the number with the three chasing arrows it). Phthalates may constitute up to 50% of PVC products by weight.
PVC is widely considered to be the most toxic and hazardous plastic still used to make a broad range of consumer products, including: toys, modeling clay, glow sticks, clear food (e.g., take-out) and non-food packaging (e.g., blister wrap, cling wrap), squeeze bottles, shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, loose-leaf binders, shower curtains, intravenous bags, blood bags, medical tubing, "pleather" clothing, Naugahyde upholstery, paints, adhesives, detergents, solvents, lubricating oils, garden hoses, wire and cable insulation, carpet backing, flooring, and as inert ingredients in insecticides.
Phthalates are also commonly found in numerous wellness, personal care and cosmetic products such as: pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, herbal remedies, nail polish, lotions, soaps, cleansers and hair care products (shampoos, sprays). They are especially common in scented products because of their ability to extend the life of the scent on the user's skin. They also reduce cracking of nail polish, reduce stiffness of hair spray, and make products more effectively penetrate and moisturize the skin.
In many cases, phthalates are not identified on product labels as this is often not a requirement for manufacturers. But if you see the word "fragrance" on the ingredient list, there is a good chance there could be phthalates as they are often included in the fragrance of personal care products.
Why are they a concern?
Being so volatile and ubiquitous - and easily released from products - phthalates can enter the human body readily through the skin by touch, and by inhalation of phthalate-contaminated dust. Similar to bisphenol A, they tend to be present in almost all humans tested.
Certain phthalates have been identified as reproductive and developmental toxins exhibiting endocrine disrupting activity. While many hormone disruptors, such as bisphenol A, interfere with the hormone estrogen, certain phthalates interfere with testosterone and other masculinizing hormones found in males and females. Some of the reproductive and developmental effects phthalates have exhibited in studies include: infertility, decreased sperm counts, reproductive tract malformations, penis and testicular deformations.
Phthalates have also been linked to certain cancers, including breast cancer.
For an overview of some of the research on these and other effects, see this independent overview of some of the research. As well, the scientific studies noted in the resources below provide other evidence of the adverse effects of phthalates on human and animal health.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. (2009, tables updated 2013).
Lowell Center for Sustanable Production. Phthalates and Their Alternatives: Health and Environmental Concerns. (January 2011).
A FEW KEY SCIENTIFIC STUDIES
Hauser, Calafat. "Phthalates and Human Health." Occup Environ Med. (2005) 62:806–818
López-Carrillo L, Hernández-Ramírez Ru, et al. "Exposure to Phthalates and Breast Cancer Risk in Northern Mexico." Environ Health Perspect. (2010) 118(4):539-544.
Swan SH, Main KM, Liu F, Stewart SL, Kruse RL, Calafat AM, et al. "Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure." Environ Health Perspect. (2005) 113:1056-1061.
Swan SH. "Environmental phthalate exposure in relation to reproductive outcomes and other health endpoints in humans." Environ Res. (2008) 108:177-184.
We have a preference for this one: LIFE WITHOUT PLASTIC: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy
Anthony L. Andrady, ed. Plastics and the Environment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie. Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
E.S. Stevens. Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Beth Terry. Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.
IMPORTANT NOTES: While we strive to provide as accurate and balanced information as possible on our website, Life Without Plastic cannot guarantee its accuracy or completness because there is always more research to do, and more up-to-date research studies emerging -- and this is especially the case regarding research on the health and environmental effects of plastics. As indicated in our Terms & Conditions, none of the information presented on this website is intended to be professional advice or to constitute a professional service to the individual reader. All matters regarding health require medical supervision, and the information presented on this website is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician.