What the Heck are Phthalates? Our PSA on This Toxin...

In addition to our concern regarding BPA in commonly used products (baby bottles, sippy cups, polycarbonate water bottles for adults, lining many canned food products, etc.), we are becoming more aware and concerned about another [virtually unregulated] toxin that is found in high quantities in most homes across America. Mamas of the world, meet "phthalates".

If you do not have time to read this entire post, you can find a Phthalates Cheat Sheet here but I believe this is an important post to read!  This toxin is found in so many products...pretty much anything that has a scent that is not coming from a natural source like pure essential oils is delivering phthalates to your door, and these chemicals are especially harmful to the development of boys.

Invented in the 1930s, the common industrial chemicals called phthalates (pronounced tha-lates) are used as ingredients in a diverse range of consumer products, from cosmetics to food wraps, toys and building materials. Currently, the chemical industry produces billions of
pounds of phthalates each year. They are used as plasticizers to soften plastic, especially PVC plastic, and to make nail polish flexible and chip-resistant; as skin moisturizers and skin penetration enhancers in cosmetics; as an ingredient of fragrance in cosmetics and cleansing products that causes the fragrance itself to last longer; as components of a broad array of consumer products, from adhesives to inks; and as solvents in a wide range of applications. People are exposed to phthalates daily through their contact with consumer products, via food packaged in plastic, and from indoor air (CDC 2005).

In September 2000, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the first accurate measurements of human phthalate exposures, and reported finding phthalates in every one of 289 people tested, at surprisingly high levels (Blount 2000). Levels of some phthalates in U.S. women of childbearing age have been found to exceed the government's safe levels set to protect against birth defects, according to another CDC study (Kohn 2000). Results of phthalate testing in more than 2,500 people ages 6 and above confirmed the CDC's original findings: phthalate exposures are widespread across the population, and women are exposed at higher levels than men (CDC 2003). In a recent study of girls age 6 to 8 spearheaded by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, phthalates were found in every one of 90 girls tested (Wolff 2007). Phthalates are widespread contaminants in the environment as well (Kolpin 2002; Rudel 2003).

Studies have linked high phthalate levels to reduced sperm motility and concentration, increased damage to sperm DNA, and alterations in hormone levels in adult men (Duty 2003, 2004, 2005; Hauser 2007). A recent study of 134 births found marked differences in the reproductive systems of baby boys whose mothers had the highest phthalate measurements during pregnancy (Swan 2005). A second study indicated that these mothers' exposures were not extreme, but rather were typical for about one-quarter of all U.S. women (Marsee 2006). Further research documented decreased testosterone levels among baby boys exposed to phthalates in their mother's breast milk (Main 2006).

New epidemiological studies indicate phthalates may produce non-reproductive health effects in people as well. Results from one study suggest that breakdown products of one particular phthalate, DEHP, may be associated with alterations in thyroid hormone levels in adult men. In another study, increased levels of certain phthalates were associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in adult men in the United States.

In addition to this epidemiological research on humans, laboratory studies indicate phthalates cause a broad range of birth defects and reproductive impairments in animals exposed in utero and shortly after birth. Phthalate exposures damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymis, penis, and seminal vesicles in laboratory animals (e.g. Mylchreest 1998); most of these effects persist throughout the animal's life.  That is pretty scary stuff!

Phthalates are considered a hazardous waste and are regulated as pollutants when industry releases them into the environment. But, they are essentially unregulated in food, cosmetics, and consumer products. The European Union has banned use of some phthalates in cosmetics and other consumer products, in response to concerns about exposure and toxicity.

When you see "fragrance" on a personal care product's label,
read it as "hidden chemicals." A major loophole in FDA's federal law lets manufacturers of products like shampoo, lotion, and body wash include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name "fragrance" without actually listing the chemical.  

Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt. An analysis of the chemical contents of products reveals that the innocuous-looking “fragrance” often contains chemicals linked to negative health effects. Phthalates are used to make fragrances last longer, and artificial musks accumulate in our bodies and can be found in breast milk. Some artificial musks are even linked to cancer. And if you've got asthma, watch out-- fragrance formulas are considered to be among the top 5 known allergens, and can trigger asthma attacks. The same kinds of chemicals are often used for fragrances in cleaning products (don't you love that fresh lemony scent...it's not lemon!), scented candles, and air fresheners.

To avoid those unpleasant side effects, choose fragrance-free products, but beware of labels that say "unscented." It may only mean that the manufacturer has added yet another fragrance to mask the original odor. Check ingredient labels carefully, or search Skin Deep to find products that do not list "fragrance" as an ingredient.

The best solution is not to allow cosmetics companies to get through this loophole. They should be required to list all of their ingredients on the label where consumers can find out what they're buying. On top of that, cosmetics manufacturers regularly include ingredients with known or suspected links to cancer, reproductive toxicity and other negative health effects. The federal government must set safety standards for personal care products.  To find out what is in your hygiene products or to sign a petition requiring cosmetic companies to declare what chemicals are in their products visit the site Skin Deep.  

Luckily, there are steps you can take to limit your exposure in your homes. Here are six seven common sources of phthalate exposure in the home, and what you can do to avoid them.

  • Nail polish: Dibutyl phthalate is often used to make nail polish chip-resistant. Look for it on the ingredients list, where it may be shortened to DBP.
  • Plastics in the kitchen: Take a critical eye to your cupboards. Phthalates may be more likely to leach out of plastic when it's heated, so avoid cooking or microwaving in plastic.
  • Vinyl toys: Phthalates are what make vinyl (PVC) toys soft, so don't give them to children. Opt instead for wooden and other phthalate-free toys, especially during that age when they put everything in their mouths!
  • Paint: Paints and other hobby products may contain phthalates as solvents, so be sure to use them in a well-ventilated space.
  • Fragrance: Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is often used as part of the "fragrance" in some products. Since DEP won't be listed separately, you're better off choosing personal care products, detergents, and cleansers that don't have the word "fragrance" on the ingredients list.
  • Vinyl: Vinyl shows up in a lot of different products; lawn furniture, garden hoses, building materials, and items of clothing (like some raincoats) are often sources. Aside from carefully choosing materials when you're making purchases, there is one easy change you can make: switch to a non-vinyl shower curtain. That "new shower curtain" smell (you know the one) is a result of chemical off-gassing, and it means your shower curtain is a source of phthalates in your home.
  • Air Fresheners: New research from the NRDC demonstrates that, just like fragrances in personal care products, most air fresheners contain phthalates. That even goes for the ones labeled "fragrance free." NRDC suggests that you open your windows and use fans to circulate air and keep it fresh.
If you are anything like me, this can all feel a bit overwhelming.  One of the best places to start in reducing your children's exposure [and your own exposure] to this chemical is in bath time - get rid of all shampoo, conditioner and soap products that contain "fragrance" in the ingredient list.  There is a Parents' Guide to Children's Personal Care Products available for downloading.  I have tested a product that I love for my kids:  California Baby Shampoo (found at Henry's, Target, Whole Foods, and even most grocery stores these days).  There is also a new baby line by a company called Little Twig that looks amazing, but I have not tested it myself.  My husband & I have transitioned to Avalon Organics Shampoo, Conditioner and Body Wash (I get ours at Trader Joe's, but am seeing it everywhere these days).  Just remember this:  our skin is our largest organ and what we put on our skin is most likely absorbed into our skin (think of the estrogen patches).

I hope this information is helpful to you.  I mean, do any of us really need more "hormone disruption" in our lives?


*almost all of the "data" for this post came from www.enviroblog.org

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