Phthalates are a series of widely used chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and are quite dangerous to human health and the health of our planet. Chronic exposure to phthalates negatively impacts the functioning of multiple organs, which can have long-term impacts on pregnancies, child growth and development, and reproductive systems in both young children and adolescents.
Several countries have established restrictions and regulations on some types of phthalates; given the known dangers, however, there is no real excuse for the loose regulations to producers in the United States, and other countries.
Plastic was invented in 1907, and had a powerful impact on many aspects of our lives. From the kitchen, to the bathroom, to toys and everyday products; they are literally everywhere. People are constantly exposed to plastics via contaminated food, packaging leaching, dust containing microplastics, personal care products, and synthetic clothing.
The most concerning chemicals in plastics include phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). These substances have been identified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals which interfere with normal hormonal actions. Compared to adults, children are much more vulnerable and sensitive to phthalates exposure, especially during early growth.
What Products Contain These Endocrine Disrupting Plastics?
Dibutyl phthalate DBP
- Nail polishers
- Plasticizer (makes plastic softer)
- Additive to adhesives
- Additive to printing inks
Diethyl phthalate DEP
- Automobile parts
- Food packaging
- Vinyl tiles
- Food conveyor belts
- Carpet tile
- Artificial leather
Dioctyl phthalate DnOP
- Household items
- Building products
- Food applications
Due to their widespread use in the environment for over a century, human exposure to phthalates leached from waste plastics is virtually unavoidable. For example, in China, plastic usage tripled over eight years from 2003 and 2011, and reached over 50 million tons of raw plastics produced and has continued to increase over the following years. In the USA, more than 340 million pounds of phthalates are consumed every year and cause potential health and environmental risks. Phthalates can easily leach into food, water, and other products applied directly to the human body.
We are exposed to these chemicals every day through ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact. Dermal absorption occurs from the daily use of personal care products containing phthalates via plastic package. Infants are exposed to phthalates by drinking breast milk with their mothers exposed to DEHP and DiNP, and sucking on toys containing DEHP, DBP, and BBP. Phthalates are even found to cross the placenta-blood barrier, which is the major exposure route to an unborn child. Some dairy products, fish, seafood, and oils are found to have a high level of phthalates: And for the residents who live near phthalates manufacturing industries, the chemicals are more likely to enter the body through absorption via the skin and inhilation by the polluted air.
Studies found that low molecular phthalates, such as DEP, can irritate the skin and mucous membrane of the oral and nasal cavities. Phthalate exposure is associated with adverse developmental effects including increased prenatal mortality, reduced growth and birth weight, skeletal, visceral, and external malformations. Experiments on male rats found that the nervous system is rather sensitive to low dose exposures of DEHP during puberty.
Human epidemiological studies have shown a significant association between phthalates exposures and adverse reproductive outcomes in both women and men, type II diabetes and insulin resistance, overweight/obesity, allergy, asthma. Evidence found that DEHP was significantly related to insulin resistance, higher systolic blood pressure and reproduction system problems, including earlier menopause, low birth weight, pregnancy loss, and preterm birth. Women were found to be exposed at higher levels than men due to frequent use of personal care products, like soap and cosmetics. Phthalates have also been negatively associated with breast cancer.
When it comes to the impacts on children, epidemiological studies revealed that exposure to phthalates adversely affected the level of reproductive hormones, anogenital distance, and thyroid function which can lead to cancer. They also saw the development of overweight and obesity among school-age children, respiratory system issues, and social impairment of children. Previous studies have found that infants and toddlers when contacting plastic toys may be exposed daily to DiNP. A study measuring the phthalates in air and dust in California (USA), found that 82–89% of children had DBP exposure exceeding the reproductive health benchmarks, and 8–11% of children aged less than 2 years exposed to DEHP exceeding cancer benchmarks.
General Health Concerns Over Phthalates
- Endocrine systems health
- Weight (overweight and obesity) and height
- Type II diabetes and insulin resistance
- Thyroid function and increased risk of thyroid cancer
- Higher systolic blood pressure
- Anogenital distance
- Precocious puberty
- Males: genital development, semen quality
- Females: pregnancy outcome (pregnancy loss and preterm birth, low birth weight), reproductive hormones, earlier menopause
- Respiratory system: allergy and asthma
- Nervous system: delayed neurodevelopment, social impairment
Since the turn of the century, restrictions on phthalates have been proposed in many Asian and western countries.
In 2001, Japan prohibited DiNP and DEHP in toys and DEHP in food-handling gloves
In 2007, Europe banned DEHP, DBP, and BBP in all PVC and other plasticized materials in all toys and childcare articles.
In 2018 in 28 EU countries banned DiBD.
In 2008, the US Congress announced the Consumer Protection Safety Act permanently banned children’s toys and childcare articles containing DEHP, DBP, and BBP at certain levels.
Australia also banned certain products that contained more than 1% of DEHP and could be chewed or sucked on by children. This ban also applied to food vessels and utensils, besides toys and childcare articles.
Similar restrictions also have been announced for the exported products from China, who is the biggest manufacturer and consumer of phthalates. Canada is also following suit.
The latest phthalates regulations in China in 2017 set detection limitations of 16 phthalates in food, food containers, and packing materials.
It has been reported that over 100 healthcare institutions around the world are reducing the use of PVC and phthalates.
Other Restrictions exist in Japan, Europe, the US, Australia, and China.
Recommendations to Avoid Phthalates
- Using glass instead of plastic wherever possible.
- Avoid heating food in plastic containers
- Avoid using personal care products that may contain phthalates.
- Test drinking water routinely for phthalates.
- Use phthalate-free gloves, utensils, and packaging to reduce exposure in food.
To protect children:
- Soft vinyl toys, old plastic toys, and teething rings should be avoided.
- One time use plastics/packaging found in drinks and food should be avoided. Try buying in bulk and using a reusable metal or glass storage container.
- Children should be kept away from waste sites of factories, especially plastic manufacturers, which can help to avoid dermal and airborne intake.
- Allow children to be outside in nature as much as possible, as the air quality is much better and does not typically contain microplastics.
Reading the Labels on Personal Care Products can easily reduce the exposure to phthalates in daily life.
Public awareness needs to be improved to educate vulnerable members of the community to avoid using plastics voluntarily, especially plastics containing phthalates. Phthalates are detrimental to the reproductive, neurological, and developmental systems of human from multiple exposure pathways. Children are at a higher level of exposure and more vulnerable to phthalates. Currently, many phthalates are banned and restricted in multiple countries and plastic manufacturers/suppliers are required to meet national and international standards. But these standards are not enough. We must push harder for the decrease of use of phthalates in our everyday products, food, clothing, and child/infant items. The FDA has already denied a petition to reduce the amounts of phthalates in our food and packaging, so the next best way to vote is with your dollar. Stop supporting the cause. Buy eco-friendly items and read labels on body care products. Shop at your local farmers markets and grow your own food.
And Please –
STOP BUYING ONE TIME USE PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES