Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are plasticizers and fragrance carriers used in a wide array of consumer products, especially those containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and personal care products like shampoos and perfumes. They are a class of chemicals that have the ability to trick your body into believing they are natural hormones when they are not, causing health impacts from obesity to asthma.
Phthalates are found in:
- PVC products such as vinyl flooring, vinyl shower curtains, and children’s toys
- Many personal care products, such as perfumes, nail polish, and lotions
- Fatty foods that have come into contact with food processing equipment or food packaging that contain phthalates.
- Medical devices, such as IV bags and tubing that are made with PVC
- Automobile interiors
Studies in animals and people have linked phthalates to serious health problems.
- In animal studies, phthalates cause an array of reproductive problems in male offspring, including small or otherwise abnormal testes, hypospadias (abnormal urinary openings), and undescended testes. In a study on people, boys born to mothers with greater exposure had altered genital development.
- Phthalates have also been linked to asthma.
- Phthalates do not build up in our bodies. But phthalates are used in a wide variety of products so we are constantly re-exposed. Thus levels in our bodies may remain fairly constant.
The widespread use of phthalates and the scientific evidence of phthalates’ reproductive effects highlights the urgent need to eliminate the plasticizers from products and food.
Most uses of phthalates are unregulated in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetics, food production, and medical devices but has not not taken steps to ban phthalates in these areas.
However, some governments and companies have taken regulatory or voluntary actions to reduce phthalate exposures including:
- In 2008, Washington state and the U.S. Congress took action restricting the use of
certain phthalates in toys and other children’s products.
- The European Union banned three phthalates in toys in 1999, banned some phthalates in cosmetics in 2003, and since 2008, and limited phthalate use in food contact materials.
- The Washington State Children’s Safe Products Act (CSPA) requires reporting of additional phthalates to ones that are banned by children’s products manufactures.
- Microsoft no longer uses PVC in its packaging material.
- Kaiser Permanente has pledged to reduce PVC wherever possible in new construction.
- Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland eliminated most PVC products from its neonatal intensive care unit, as has the Special Care Nursery at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle.
- Seattle and Olympia both passed resolutions committing them to seeking alternatives to PVC for city operations.
These actions show it’s possible to eliminate these hormone-disrupting chemicals in products. More can and should be done to address the use of phthalates:
- Food manufacturers and producers should phase out the use of food processing equipment and packaging that contain phthalates.
- State and federal governments should phase out phthalates in products such as home furnishings, building materials, cosmetics, food packaging, and medical devices.
- Cosmetics companies should phase out phthalates and other potentially harmful toxic chemicals in personal care products.
- Hospitals should phase out PVC medical devices. Healthcare Without Harm has worked with Kaiser and other healthcare institutions to identify safer alternatives.
You can reduce your own and your family’s exposure to phthalates by avoiding PVC and purchasing products from companies that have eliminated phthalates.
Some of the products that should be avoided include:
- Vinyl windows and doors. Opt for wood instead.
- PVC Packaging. Product packages marked with the #3 recycling symbol contain PVC.
- Vinyl shower curtains. Choose cotton, polyester, or nylon curtains.
- PVC Toys.
- PVC food storage containers and materials. Buy plastic wrap and bags made from polyethylene. For food storage, use glass containers or plastic containers marked with recycling symbols other than #3 (V) or PVC.
- You can also choose phthalate-free cosmetics. Check ingredient lists and avoid products listing ‘fragrance’ or phthalates. A wide variety of personal-care products may contain phthalates, including perfume, cologne, after-shave, deodorant, soap, hair and skin-care products, and makeup. Check EWG’s Skin Deep database to find safer products.
- Minimize your consumption of fatty, oily, and processed foods.