Phthoughts on phthalates: odd spelling, clear problem

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Have you ever heard of phthalates or DEHP? I hadn’t either, until I read a recent US study that monitored nearly 800 pregnant women and found that exposure to a common household chemical called DEHP may alter infant boys’ genitals before birth, along with potentially being linked to a host of other health problems. In 2008, the US issued a nationwide ban on DEHP and two other phthalates (DBP and BBP) in children’s toys at levels higher than 0.1%; the EU restrictions on DEHP came into effect on February 21, 2015. Good news, right?

Well… yes, but that’s not the whole story. DEHP is part of a family of chemicals called phthalates. Similar to the related family of bisphenols, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. That means that they interfere with our hormones and can cause health problems, even at very low levels. A recent estimate places the cost of health problems due to exposure to endocrine disruptors at over $175 billion a year – in Europe alone!

Photo for phthalates blog

“Người Bạn Đâu Tiên” by Brandon Nguyen (posted on flickr by Bố Tony), licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite their known endocrine disrupting properties, phthalates continue to be found in many home and consumer products including carpets, flooring, furniture, paneling, car interiors, personal care products like shampoo and nail polish, and even children’s toys and crib mattress covers. They migrate out of products and can be absorbed into the human body.

While the recent US and EU DEHP bans are starting to take effect, a study was recently published linking DiNP, a common DEHP replacement, to many of the same reproductive health impacts. Several other forms of phthalates are also still unregulated, and have been linked to health problems including male infertility, childhood asthma, teen obesity and insulin resistance, early puberty and early menopause.

Replacing one harmful compound with another that has similar adverse effects doesn’t solve the problem; we need to start reducing the use of entire classes of harmful compounds.

So, what can you do? Avoiding phthalates can be difficult because they aren’t listed as an ingredient on most product labels. However, you can:

  • Look for “phthalate free” product labels.
  • Beware of synthetic fragrances; look for natural air fresheners or essential oils.
  • Never heat your food in a plastic container; phthalates can be released into the air or into your food when they undergo heat extremes.
  • Avoid plastic children’s toys.

Check out this article for more ideas about how to avoid phthalates.

The good news is, industries often respond to consumer pressure. Rising consumer demand for safe cosmetics in recent years has played a role in driving “more than 1,000 cosmetics and personal care companies to remove some dangerous chemicals, including phthalates, from their products.” Responsible consumer decision-making not only has the power to protect your health, but can also help bring about industry change.

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