Phthalates: The Scientific Truth Behind the ‘Bad Boy’ Polymer Additive

Are phthalates the bad boys of the polymer world? There’s a debate raging out there in the global community, and it’s every bit as vigorous and polarized as the one raging over BPA. Depending on who you listen to, you could believe phthalates are the evil villain of all things plastic or sadly misunderstood, hardworking wonder compounds. 136345_478989

To understand the debate, you first need to understand where, and with what frequency,
humans encounter phthalates. To put it bluntly: they’re pretty much everywhere. Phthalates are compounds used to soften plastics and vinyl and enhance their flexibility. They’re often used in plastic and vinyl consumer products like toys, shower curtains, food packaging, plastic wrap, plastic plumbing pipes, medical tubing and fluid bags – pretty much anywhere you need plastic or vinyl to be flexible. Phthalates can also be found in liquids such as nail polish, cosmetics, perfumes, insecticides, detergents, lubricants, adhesives and wood finishes. However, they are not used in U.S. made pacifiers, soft rattles or teethers; in 1999 the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission asked manufacturers of these products to discontinue using phthalates.[1]

Exposure can occur in a number of ways. People may ingest phthalates. A child might suck or chew on a vinyl toy, adults might heat food in a plastic container not intended for use in a microwave. You can also inhale phthalates, as a room with new vinyl flooring or fresh paint may contain airborne phthalates. Additionally, wearing clothing, cosmetics or insect repellant that contain phthalates may increase your exposure.[2]

Studies and research point to a link between high phthalate exposure and certain health effects, including reproductive organ defects, respiratory disorders and other concerns. It’s important to note that the bulk of the evidence focuses the highest concern on the effects phthalates may have on gestational development, infants and children when a high level of exposure occurs. It’s harder to find studies or evidence that support health risks in adults with a moderate or low level of phthalate exposure. In terms of research, there’s a lot more to be done before we have a completely clear picture of how phthalates affect human health.

For now, as you wait for science to have the final word in the debate, it is possible to reduce your potential phthalate exposure. Look for children’s toys and products, and personal care products that are labeled “phthalate-free.” Never microwave food in containers not intended for that use, like fast food or to-go containers. If you’re unsure what products contain phthalates, check out the universal recycling symbol. Products marked with the number 3 and/or the letters “V” or “PVC” likely contain phthalates. Those marked with the numerals 1, 2, 4 and 5 likely don’t contain phthalates and are probably made with an alternative polymer, such as polypropylene.

Undoubtedly, the debate will endure and science will continue to develop a better understanding of and alternatives to phthalates.

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