Can You Say Phthalates?

It’s pronounced THAL-ates, it has an odd spelling – the p and the h seem to be just along for a free ride – and it, as a substance, not a word,  is said to be problematic to our health and the environment.

Phthalates are plastic softening agents that are in so many items that we are exposed to daily. [There are several used,  such as di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate and dibutyl phthalate. I will continue to use the umbrella term phthalate.] They’re used to make vinyl products more flexible, such as vinyl flooring, plastic bottles and tubing. Phthalates are also used as solvents and softeners in perfumes, fragrances and are used in many personal care products. Phthalates can also leach into personal care and processed foods through the PVC tubing used in the manufacturing process.

So, what’s the problem(s)?

The problem – or not, depending on who you are trusting with accurate information – is the potential of phthalates as endocrine disrupters, mimicing or disrupting the hormone function. The most predominant (or studied) result of this is the effect phthalates have on reproductive development in human males. In one study conducted by Dr Shanna Swan et al, published in the International Journal of Andrology,  it was shown that phthalate exposure effects the masculine behavior of pre-school boys. The exposure was measured in the prenatal urine of the mothers. Other studies have concluded similar effects on boys exposed to phthalates through the mothers absorption.

The American Chemistry Council says there are numerous studies that support the safety of phthalates and that studies such as the one conducted by  Swan, fails to establish any claimed changes in reproductive development.

Hmmm, so what’s a mother to do?  And whose word do you trust?

It’s extremely difficult to avoid phthalates. The U.S. and the EU do not allow the use of phthalates in toys, and the EU has banned their use in personal care, making it tricky to avoid phthalates in U. S. distributed personal care. Exposure, according to the studies, is coming from shampoos, lotions and skin care. In my work as a product developer I try very hard to avoid phthalates. It’s not easy. You have to be aware of every possible source of contamination. A company that claims phthalate free may not be. Not because they are consciously using phthalates in formulation or fragrance, but may not be aware of alternate soucrces of contamination such as the PVC tubing in manufacturing or packaging used in bulk ingredients. A claim should include a third party certification that testing was performed on the finished product.

This is an important topic and one that will begin reaching the mainstream headlines. The solution to the problem and just how big a problem it is remains to be seen. I do sit on the side of caution, and with so many studies pointing to hormonal changes I would suggest that for now, just like with the preservative paraben, it may be wise to steer clear as much as your awareness of being exposed will allow.

I haven’t discussed the environmental impact of phthalates. They are excreted in the urine and end up in the waters.  I’d rather discuss the five legged frog, feminization of aquatic animals and other issues at another time.

Now, without looking at the word again – try to spell it.