Phthalates, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (aka "ATSDR" which is a federal public health agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services), "are typically colorless liquids used to make plastics more flexible and resilient, and are often referred to as plasticizers. Because they are not a part of the chain of chemicals (polymers) that makes up plastics, they can be released fairly easily from these products. These plastics are found in products such as toothbrushes, automobile parts, tools, toys, and food packaging. Some are also used in cosmetics, insecticides, and aspirin." There are 4 main chemicals that can be considered a "phthalate."
You can click on each link above to get a detailed description of the individual chemicals and the concerns associated with them. There are an additional six chemicals which the Environmental Protection Agency would like to add to this list.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking food that have come into contact with containers and products that contain phthalates. We can also breathe in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles.
"In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), CDC scientists measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of 2,636 or more participants aged six years and older who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during 2003–2004. By measuring phthalate metabolites in urine, scientists can estimate the amount of phthalates that have entered people's bodies."
- CDC researchers found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population. This finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S. population.
- Research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy (which was reaffirmed in January 2007) regarding "pediatric exposure and potential toxicity of phthalate plasticizers." They concluded that, "the conflicting conclusions on the safety of phthalates under current exposure conditions provide important illustrations of the subtlety and complexity of the science and policy components required to protect children from environmental hazards." "Human data on exposure to phthalates are very limited. In particular, data on the magnitude and distribution of exposures in sensitive subpopulations, such as women of childbearing age, neonates, infants, and toddlers in the general population and medically exposed fetuses, premature infants, neonates, young children, and adolescents, are lacking. New biomarker data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cast doubt on the accuracy of previous estimates of human exposure, which have been used for risk assessment to date." "As with many environmental toxicants, children may be at higher risk of adverse effects of phthalates because of anticipated higher exposures during a time of developmental and physiologic immaturity. In response to this theoretical concern, measures to decrease possible exposure through nondietary ingestion are underway. In the United States and Canada, all phthalates have been removed from infant bottle nipples, teethers, and toys intended for mouthing. Manufacturers have voluntarily begun to substitute the less toxic DINP for DEHP in other toys."
A study published in the Journal Pediatrics looked at "Baby Care Products: Possible Sources of Infant Phthalate Exposure." The study found that "Phthalate exposure is widespread and variable in infants. Infant exposure to lotion, powder, and shampoo were significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of monoethyl phthalate, monomethyl phthalate, and monoisobutyl phthalate, and associations increased with the number of products used. This association was strongest in young infants, who may be more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxicity of phthalates given their immature metabolic system capability and increased dosage per unit body surface area."
Organizations like the Environmental Working Group are actively working to increase awareness about phthalate exposure and to pressure companies to reformulate their products to avoid the use of phthalates. "In July 2008, as a result of pressure from EWG and other health groups, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning six phthalates from children’s toys and cosmetics. Legislators in Washington, Vermont and California have restricted phthalate use in children’s goods, and several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, Lego, Evenflo and Gerber say they will phase out phthalate-laden toys." Their "skin deep" database will allow you to actually compare products to find ones that are phthalate free. I've referenced this database before in my post about sunscreen.
Like BPA, many of the long-term effects of phthalate exposure are unknown. There are more studies being conducted to establish a definite cause and effect relationship between phthalate exposure in humans vs. animal studies. However, despite the limited amount of available studies, this is an instance where it appears safest to err on the side of caution and avoid using products which contain phthalates. It still amazes me how many products are available that have no long-term safety data. It is even scarier to think how widespread our exposure is to these agents. There are many alternatives on the market and many companies are actually indicating on their products if they are phthalate free. In my opinion, it is just safer and in the best interest of my children to choose these products.