are a class of chemicals commonly used in consumer products. Phthalates
cause a wide range of adverse health problems including liver, kidney
and lung damage as well as reproductive system and sexual developmental
abnormalities. Phthalates are classified as probable human
are phthalates and how are they used?
we know phthalates are in our bodies? How do they get there?
do phthalates affect our health?
is the government regulating phthalates?
Who is working to eliminate phthalates,
and how can I help?
What are phthalates and how are they used?
A: Phthalates are a class of chemicals added to a number
of common consumer products. In 1994, close to 87% of all phthalates
in the United States were used as plasticizers, or softening agents,
in vinyl products. Plasticizers are molasses-like materials that saturate
a three-dimensional matrix, such as a stiff sponge. The sponge becomes
flexible, but with time the molasses gradually exits, making the sponge
stiff again. Soft vinyl products may contain more than 40% phthalates
by weight. Humans are widely exposed to phthalates because vinyl is
a ubiquitous plastic used to make anything from home furnishings (for
example, flooring, wallpaper), medical devices (for example, catheters,
IV- and blood bags), children's items (for example, infant feeding bottles,
squeeze toys, changing mats, teethers) to packaging (for example, disposable
bottles, food wrap).
Beyond vinyl, humans are further exposed to phthalates in cosmetics
and scented products such as perfumes, soaps, lotions and shampoos.
Phthalates are also added to insecticides, adhesives, sealants and car-care
Do we know phthalates are in our bodies? How do they get there?
A: A study released by the Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) in 2001 confirmed that humans have certain phthalates in our bodies.
Eating, breathing and skin contact, as well as blood transfusion, are
all ways, either together or alone, that phthalates make their way into
our bodies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), eating is probably the main route by which humans are contaminated
with diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), the most widely used phthalate plasticizer.
DEHP migrates into food from certain foodwraps during storage.
Similarly, we are also contaminated with other commonly used phthalates
such as diisononyl phthalate (DINP).
take in higher than average amounts because many chew toys are made
of highly phthalate-softened vinyl (for example, teethers). Indeed,
the highest levels of DINP released from teethers and toys exceeded
the acceptable daily intake level in studies, conducted in the Netherlands
and Denmark, that simulated children's mouthing behavior. Furthermore,
a Dutch study confirmed what most of us have observed --- children suck
or chew their fingers and other things that are not intended to go into
their mouths more than chew toys. This instinctive chewing undoubtedly
adds to their overall intake of phthalates.
Blood transfusion is another
route of human phthalate intake. Phthalates make their way from
vinyl or PVC medical devices into solutions that are then fed into the
patient. People who are ill, especially children whose systems are still
developing, may be particularly sensitive to this type of exposure.
In September of 2001, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S.
FDA) warned that some medical devices made of vinyl may expose certain
patients to unsafe amounts of the phthalate DEHP. Later, The American
Medical Association (AMA) voiced concerns about DEHP-containing medical
devices, and a Health Canada Advisory Panel further recommended that
health care providers not use DEHP-containing medical products in certain
patient groups including infants and males before puberty. Concerns
have in fact been raised by the National Toxicology Program that the
developing, but not mature, male genital tract in humans may be adversely
affected by high levels of DEHP.
Breathing in air and dust
containing phthalates that have escaped from vinyl flooring also adds
to the amount of phthalates in our systems. Again, this is particularly
worrisome for children since they spend a lot of time indoors breathing
close to the floor. In fact, an initial study conducted in Norway
reported a higher incidence of bronchial obstruction in children living
in houses with vinyl, as opposed to wooden, floors. Phthalates
being released into the air may be the link between these two observations.
Skin contact could be a very important route of phthalate intake from
personal care products such as soap. In the CDC study of phthalates,
the breakdown product of diethyl phthalate (DEP) was detected in the
highest level in the tested population. DEP is used in a number
of scented products such as soaps, lotions and perfumes. DEP is
also found in plastic products like toothbrushes, toys and food packaging.
Q: How do phthalates affect our health?
Recently, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) expressed concern over
the adverse development of babies born to pregnant women who take in
DEHP at the normal levels estimated for an adult. They also expressed
concern that male infants and toddlers who substantially exceed adult
DEHP intake estimates could suffer problems in their reproductive system
DEHP has been classified as a "probable human carcinogen"
by the EPA. The Department of Health and Human Services has also
classified DEHP as a potential carcinogen. That is to say, DEHP
may reasonably be considered a cancer causing substance in humans. Rats
and mice fed DEHP and DINP also showed an increase in liver cancers
over animals that had not been fed the chemicals.
The offspring of rats separately
fed three different phthalates, namely diethyl hexyl-, diisononyl- and
butyl benzyl phthalate (DEHP, DINP and BBP, respectively), do not follow
normal patterns of sexual development. In the case of DEHP-fed
and BBP-fed rats, the weight of the offspring was also reduced.
Other studies also report subtle effects of DEHP in the testes of young
rats at very low levels.
High doses of diethyl phthalate (DEP) given to female rats have been
shown to cause the growth of an extra rib in their offspring. Additionally,
female animals exposed to DEP throughout their lives experience an elevated
number of stillbirths. According to a 1996 report from the Agency
for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), No information
is available regarding possible effects caused by diethyl phthalate
if you breathe, eat, or drink it, or if it touches your skin.
This is a troubling statement given the diversity of products to which
DEP is added. Furthermore, it highlights the inadequate regulations
for widely used commercial chemicals.
Q: How is the government regulating phthalates?
A: In 1999, prompted by the potential of babies to
intake dangerous amounts of phthalates and the serious, negative health
effects found in animal studies, the European Union placed an emergency
ban on the use of certain phthalates in toys made for children under
the age of three. This emergency ban was recently renewed. In
the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and
the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA) agreed upon a voluntary limit
of DEHP at 3% in pacifiers and teethers in 1986. Later in 1998,
the CPSC asked toy manufacturers to voluntarily withdraw vinyl teething
rings and rattles containing the phthalate DINP from the market.
However, such voluntary agreements do not stop the use of, and childrens
exposure to, hazardous or untested additives. Similarly, adults
are also exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals by using any number
of phthalate-containing products.
are also in place for phthalates in plastics that come into contact
with food such as during its processing, transportation and storage.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that butyl benzyl phthalate
(BBP) and diisononyl phthalate (DINP) may be safely used
at levels up to 1% and 43%, respectively. Closer inspection, however,
reveals provisions that are very likely to be broken. For example,
the regulation states that the plastics should be used at temperatures
not exceeding room temperature. This implies that warming
food wrapped in plastic in a microwave may be considered unsafe -- a
practice many in this country exercise on a daily basis.
Note: Environmental health experts recommend that one way to avoid phthalate
exposure is to avoid microwaving foods in plastic if you are not sure
whether your food wrap or plastic container is made with PVC.
Q. Who is working to eliminate phthalates, and
how can I help?
A: To learn how you can avoid exposure to phthalates
and other hazardous chemicals added to vinyl, visit the organizations
and websites listed below. Not only will you learn more about
the entire vinyl lifecycle, you can join consumer campaigns and add
your voice to the chorus of people calling to eliminate this damaging
Phthalates in building
Healthy Building Network, www.healthybuilding.net
Contact: Bill Walsh, 202-232-4108, firstname.lastname@example.org
Phthalates in cosmetics:
Coming Clean, www.come-clean.org
Contact: Bryony Schwan, 406-543-3747, email@example.com
Phthalates in medical devices:
Health Care Without Harm, www.noharm.org
Contact: Stacy Malkan, 202-234-0091, ext. 14, firstname.lastname@example.org
Phthalates in nail polish:
Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org
Contact: Mike Casey, 202-667-6982, email@example.com
Phthalates in toys:
Contact: Lisa Finaldi, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information
on phthalates, see:
Stolen Future website
For more on the health effects of phthalates and evidence of body
Recent report on phthalates from Health
Care Without Harm and
The 2001 Centers for
Disease Control report on body burden monitoring [http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/]
For more on phthalates in cosmetics, go to:
Recent report on phthalates
in cosmetics and
For more on phthalates in medical devices, go to:
For more on phthalates in vinyl toys and home furnishings, go to: