Phthalates: Versatile Chemicals Found in Thousands of Products

Manufacturers use a group of chemicals known as phthalates in a wide variety of everyday products. They make products more durable, flexible, and weather resistant, but they are also the subject of ongoing health controversy. 

They are so common that a majority of people tested by the CDC were found to have phthalate metabolites in their urine. However, they have been linked to impaired adult fertility and an increased risk of cancer. They may also affect hormones responsible for growth and metabolism. 

Globally, about 7.5 million tons of plasticizers are produced every year. Plasticizers are used to modify plastics, mostly making them more flexible and durable. Phthalates are the most common plasticizers used. 

The United States and European Union have tightened regulation in recent years, especially in the manufacture of children’s toys. This is why companies perform phthalate testing for consumer products to make sure they comply. But, it is important to note two things:

  1. Not all products that make it to the shelves are tested
  2. Not all harmful substances are known or properly regulated

Industry lobbyists argue that plasticizers are safe at reasonable exposure levels.The American Chemistry Council says that removing phthalates “could mean the loss of essential properties in consumer and industrial products we rely on every day.” Phthalates pose an extremely low risk of exposure, even in toys, according to its website. They cite favorable results from the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. 

We don’t necessarily want to give up the plastics that support the convenience of our everyday life…Plasticizers like phthalates can make plastics like PVC more pliant, making it useful for vinyl flooring, waterproofing membranes, and insulation of electric cords. It provides excellent heat resistance. They can also prevent corrosion in vehicles and make cars and trucks lighter and more fuel-efficient. The chemicals are even used as coatings for some pills, and in IV tubing.  

But to be cautious, you may want to take a second look at some of the products you us. Women are said to have higher levels of phthalate metabolites because the chemicals are found in shampoos, fragrances, and nail products.

Manufacturers also use them in food packaging, and some debate remains over whether the chemical can leach out. According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, diet is “a major source of human exposure” to phthalates. The Huffington Post reported that consumers should avoid heating plastic food packaging. They also said high-fat foods are more susceptible when the chemicals leach out. Some warn against placing these plastics in the dishwasher. 

These chemicals are usually placed in two groups — high phthalates and low phthalates. The first contains nine to 13 carbon atoms, which adds to permanency and durability. Diisonoyl phthalate (DINP) is one example. This shows up in self-adhesive films, synthetic leather, and automobile applications. Low phthalates, which contain three to eight carbon atoms, include dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Manufacturers use these in medical devices, inks, and cosmetics.

A professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health argues it’s easy to replace phthalates in consumer products. However, he says, “we do need to study what they’re using for substitute chemicals” and any risks they pose. Nail polish usually contained a phthalate to keep it from becoming brittle, but now there are alternative formulations, he said. 

“Part of the reason we’re pushing for elimination is that it’s very hard for consumers to know what products [the chemicals] are in — especially personal care products,” professor Russ Hauser said. 

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