What are they? They are a class of chemicals used in many household products. They’re very prevalent because of their usefulness: 1) they act as a plasticizer to keep substances soft and rubbery, 2) they act as a lubricant to help substances flow together well, 3) they allow lotions to penetrate the skin effectively, and 4) they keep fragrances lasting longer. They are commonly found around the home in cleaning supplies, shampoos, air fresheners, and happen to be the cause of that new car smell. In addition, many vinyl products also contain phthalates such as kid’s toys, shower curtains and raincoats. Even our food isn’t safe! Phthalates are found highest in fatty foods such as dairy (including infant formulas), fish, meat and oils. They enter the dairy food chain because they’re used in the flexible vinyl tubing which drains milk from the milking machines into holding vessels. We’re ingesting, inhaling and absorbing phthalates constantly!
Why they are bad for you: Research indicates they are messing up males’ testicular function. Rodent studies linked fetal exposure with a shortening of the distance between the anus and the base of the penis, improper testicular descent, and a penile defect called hypospadias in which the opening of the urethra is not located in the proper place on the tip of the penis. When phthalates were studied for the effect they had on humans, they found a similar response which they termed “testicular dysgenesis syndrome” (TDS). This includes hypospadias, poor sperm quality, cryptorchidism (absence of one or both of the testes in the scrotum) and testicular cancer. One study assessing the exposure rate in children found that over 80% of 163 infants studied had phthalates detectable in their urine. Not good!
What to do about them: At risk for stating the obvious, read labels! Often phthalates will not be directly on the label; instead they’ll be hidden behind terms such as “fragrance” or “parfum”. Avoid personal care products with these listed as ingredients. Remove your old polyvinyl chloride (PVC) shower curtain (the off-gassing of phthalates is particularly strong when you first remove the shower curtain from the packaging) and instead choose one made from natural ingredients such as organic cotton and hemp, or from recycled polyester. Forgo the use of air fresheners! Instead, open windows, burn natural incense, or use the highly-absorptive properties of baking soda to remove odors. If you are concerned about what your children are handling and placing in their mouths, use the invaluable database provided at HealthyStuff.org to rank over 8,300 toys based on levels of PVCs and other heavy metals. Lastly, by reducing your fat consumption of foods such as dairy and meat, you’re able to reduce exposure to not only phthalates, but also antibiotics and hormones (in non-organic foods).
Moving in the right direction: As a testament to their toxicity, the Canadian government recognized the plight of phthalates on our health and the health of our children and implemented regulation to restrict their use in January 2011.
More info: How Toxic Chemicals in Personal Care Products can Cause Harm (Naturopathic Doctor News and Reviews)