What You Need to Know About the Harmful Plastics Called Phthalates

What You Need to Know About the Harmful Plastics Called Phthalates

Taking charge of how the environment affects your health is more necessary—and more possible—now than ever. That’s because we are increasingly knowledgeable about the negative effects of chemicals in our air, food and household goods and products. And with that knowledge comes the opportunity for you to control your exposure. Take phthalates for example.

You frequently hear about the health hazards of phthalates, because these hormone-disrupting chemicals are used to make plastic flexible. They’re also employed as a binding agent in everything from household cleaners to food packaging, cosmetics and personal-care products. They even show up in common air fresheners, though you wouldn’t know it from the ads.

You come in contact with phthalates through use of such products at home and through food processing that transfers them into the food you eat; and you are exposed to them through medical devices made with parts that contain them. And then there’s the industrial waste that permeates air, water and soil.

What we know already
The first alarm about phthalates was sounded by Health Care Without Harm in a 2002 paper called Aggregate Exposures to Phthalates in Humans. They stated:

“… the developing male reproductive tract appears to be the most sensitive endpoint, although effects on the liver, kidneys, lungs, and blood clotting are also of concern…several of the phthalates…interfere with male reproductive tract development and are toxic to cells in the testes responsible for assuring normal sperm and hormone production. Human exposure to DEHP from PVC medical devices used in patient care has been known for some time.”

That was followed by a paper from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 in which they announced that phthalates were found in the urine of most Americans.

That led to the 2008 banning of phthalates in some children’s toys and child-care products, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s final report in 2014, Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalate Alternatives: “Overall, the epidemiological literature suggests that phthalate exposure during gestation may contribute to reduced anogenital distance [between the anus and the scrotum] and neuro-behavioral effects in male infants or children. Other limited studies suggest that adult phthalate exposure may be associated with poor sperm quality.”

In addition, studies in the past have highlighted other phthalate-associated health problems:

  • Kids exposed to high levels of phthalates in utero are 70 percent more likely to develop asthma between the ages of 5 and 12.
  • A study in Plos One found phthalate exposure in utero was related to lowered IQ at age seven.
  • Other studies in Pediatrics found phthalate levels in children were associated with early-onset high blood pressure and insulin resistance.

Finally, Australian scientists found that men with higher total blood phthalate levels are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Clearly, federal regulations banning phthalates are necessary. When responsible parties walk away from the moral authority and oversight they can and should provide, we find it profoundly dismaying and shortsighted in terms of both health and economic wellbeing.

So, here’s what you can do to reduce your exposure.                     

  1. Opt for unpackaged, fresh fruits and vegetables.
  2. Avoid highly processed and prepackaged foods. Skip canned goods and yes, almost every prepackaged mac and cheese has substantial quantities of phthalates that leach into the cheese.
  3. Stick with fresh spices.
  4. Eliminate high-fat meats and diary from your diet. The fat in dairy, as it passes through plastic tubing and plastic machine parts used in processing, increases the leaching of phthalates from the plastic into the food.
  5. Use glass for food storage; try not to store food in plastic. Do not wash plastic containers in the dishwasher.
  6. Let your representatives know that you want them to create regulations that protect you and your family from phthalate pollution.

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

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