Phthalates: harming your health
Phthalates in plastics: The risk of exposure and how to reduce it
Phthalates are plasticizers used in a wide range of commonly used personal care and household products including food packaging, car interiors, fragrances, flooring and other indoor building materials.
Childhood asthma risk
New research has emerged this month which demonstrates that phthalate exposure in pregnancy is associated with childhood asthma.
The study published in Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that children who were born to mothers exposed during pregnancy to higher levels of the phthalates BBzP and DnBP had a 72 percent and 78 percent increase in risk of developing asthma between the ages 5 and 11 respectively, compared with children of mothers with lower levels of exposure.
This new research highlights the need for pregnant women to avoid environmental exposures to phthalates in order to protect the developing fetus and reduce the risk of asthma onset in their child.
“The fetus is extremely vulnerable during during pregnancy. While it is incumbent on mothers to do everything they can to protect their child, they are virtually helpless when it comes to phthalates like BBzP and DnBP that are unavoidable.
If we want to protect children, we have to protect pregnant women”, stated the study’s senior author Rachel Miller, MD.
This study adds to the growing body of evidence that links phthalate exposure with allergies and asthma in addition to a range of other adverse health risks.
Other health risks of phthalates
Phthalates have long been known for their endocrine disrupting properties leading to reproductive health concerns for both women and men. Exposure to phthalates such as DEHP, DnBP and BBzP produces reproductive and developmental toxicity, with a range of adverse health effects.
In males, these include interfering with testicular function, delayed puberty, and decreasing sperm motility and production. Defects in reproductive function have also been reported from animal studies which demonstrated that prenatal BBzP and DnBP exposure resulted in increased incidence of undescended testicles and hypospadias.
In women, studies have also shown a link between phthalate exposure and hormone-related conditions such as endometriosis, delayed puberty, early menopause and decreased number of live fetuses at birth.
Early breast development
A case-control study examined phthalate levels in healthy girls who went through thelarche (breast development) before the age of 8. They were compared with two groups of other girls, one group who underwent early breast development due to abnormalities in their neuroendocrine systems, and another group of girls who were progressing through puberty at normal ages.
It was found that increased levels of monomethyl phthalate (MMP) were associated with the early thelarche group, but not with either of the comparison groups.
Early breast development in otherwise healthy girls has been linked with an increased risk for breast cancer.
The carcinogenic properties of phthalates and their potential to cause tumours have also been demonstrated. Numerous animal studies have shown that phthalate exposure increases risk of testicular tumour and kidney cysts, and induces liver enlargement and carcinogenesis.
Prenatal exposure to certain phthalates may decrease child mental and motor development and increase internalizing and withdrawal behaviours.
A study undertaken by the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research found a statistical association between prenatal exposure to phthalates and incidence of childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder years later.
Phthalate manufacture and use in consumer products
In the United States several phthalates, including BBzP and DnBP have been banned from use in the manufacture of children’s toys. However, when used in other products they are rarely listed on labels.
In Australia, whilst there are currently no restrictions on the manufacture, importation or use of DnBP, it is one of a number of phthalates that is listed as a hazardous substance. DnBP is listed in the Safe Work Australia List of Designated Hazardous Substances contained in the Hazardous Substances Information System (HSIS) as a Reproductive Toxicant Category 2.
This requires it to be labelled with the risk phrase “May cause harm to the unborn child”. It is also listed as a Reproductive Toxicant Category 3 requiring the risk phrase, “Possible risk of impaired fertility”.
BBzP is currently waiting to be assessed by the Australian government’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme for its health and/or environmental effects.
Consequently the Australian government does not currently provide advice as to the health risks of exposure to this particular phthalate.
Routes of phthalate exposure
Phthalates are not chemically bound to the material to which they are added which means that they are able to easily leach out of the material into the surrounding environment.
Exposure to phthalates can occur via digestion, for example from contaminated foods; via inhalation from the outgassing of phthalate household materials; or via absorption through the skin, such as occurs when using personal care products which contain phthalates.
Phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment and found in a range of products including:
- All PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastics
- Foods contaminated by their plastic packaging
- Plastic drinking bottles and storage containers
- Medical plastics such as IV bags and tubes
- Children’s toys and supplies
- Cosmetics, such as nail polish and perfumes
- PVC flooring
- PVC piping for water systems
- PVC furniture and home furnishings such as shower curtains
Food sources of phthalates
Phthalate have a tendency to bio-concentrate in animal fat and are therefore often found in meat and dairy products. The World Health Organisation reported that BBzP is commonly found in foodstuffs such as yoghurt, cheddar cheese, butter, crackers, baked savouries, meat pies, sandwiches, meat, poultry, milk, eggs and infant formula.
In July 2012 a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology analysed the presence of eight phthalates in 400 food products sold on the Belgium food market.
A wide variety of phthalate concentrations were observed, with DEHP being the most abundant phthalate compound, followed by DiBP, DnBP and BBzP.
Reducing your exposure to phthalates
Whilst it is almost impossible to completely avoid phthalates in your daily life, you can reduce your exposure to these toxins in numerous ways. Avoid buying products containing PVC; instead choose products from companies that have eliminated phthalates. Wherever possible, choose glass, metal, ceramic, wooden or other natural non-PVC products. When buying food, try to avoid foods packaged in plastic, and never use plastic food storage containers to keep your leftovers.
Consumers are often advised to look for plastic products made from polypropylene (#5) or polyethylene (#2 and #4) which do not contain phthalates (#3) or BPA (#7).
However, in 2011 a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives demonstrated that almost all commercially available plastic products leached chemicals which had estrogenic activity, including those advertised as BPA-free.
A plastic marketed as BPA- and phthalate-free does not mean it’s non-toxic.
Tips to reduce phthalate exposure:
Food storage and packaging
Avoid plastic wraps and bags as much as possible
Avoid the use of plastic containers for food storage
Never use old plastic containers for food storage –Old plastics are more likely to break down particularly when they come into contact with substances such as hot water which cause them to be released from the plastic
Favour glass containers for food storageIf buying organic food, ensure the foods are not packaged in plastic wrap
Always drink from glass or stainless steel
Food heating / re-heating
Never heat or microwave food in plastic containers
Never use hot liquids in plastic drinking bottles or plastic containers
Baby bottles and sippy cups
Avoid the use of plastic baby bottles or sippy cups, including those marketed as BPA-free
Use glass baby bottles with silicone nipples. (When plastic can’t be completely avoided, the most stable type which is slowest to degrade and leach chemicals into your water and food is silicone)
Use stainless steel sippy cups
Avoid plastic toys (if possible!)
If you can’t avoid plastic toys, at the very least ensure they are marketed as phthalate- and BPA-free (however be aware they will still contain other toxic plastics)
Favour wooden and other natural non-PVC based toys
Personal care products
Avoid nail polish, perfumes, colognes, and other scented products that are labelled as containing phthalates. Scented products which simply list “fragrance” as an ingredient often incorporate various chemicals including phthalates
Choose PVC-free home furnishings and building materials
PVC piping is a commonly used building material, often used for water systems due to its non-corrosive qualities. Studies have shown that phthalates slowly leach from PVC pipes at a rate of up to 1 percent a year, contaminating your water supply. Whilst this seems like a small amount it still adds to your total body burden of phthalates
Use PVC-free flooring materials. Phthalates in PVC flooring material release chemical gases into the air
Ensure your shower curtain is not made from PVC, as this will also outgas chemicals from phthalates into the air