Phthalates belong to a family of chemical compounds called plasticisers and are used to make plastic more flexible and less brittle; as aerosol delivery agents; to impart flexibility to nail polish; and to retain scents in scented products. They are used in a huge range of products from adhesives and flooring, perfumes and cosmetics to food packaging and medical equipment; their ubiquity results in unavoidable daily exposures for adults, children and babies.

High molecular weight phthalates such as DEHP, BBzP, DnOP, DiNP and DiDP are typically used in hard polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, some adhesives, food packaging, rainwear and other vinyl products. Since these phthalates are not strongly bonded to the plastics, they leach out relatively easily over time. Food may be contaminated during food manufacture, preparation or processing.

It can cause altered growth and normal development, especially in the womb.

Why are they harmful?
One of their main effects on animals and humans is that they cause endocrine disruption, interfering with the balance of hormones that regulate virtually every important physiological process in the human body. Endocrine disruptors ‘disrupt’ by decreasing or increasing the body’s hormone levels; by mimicking the action of natural hormones; and/or by interfering with the body’s production of different hormones. Hormones are important signalling molecules which govern metabolic processes such as growth, development and reproductive function. As a result, endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause altered growth and normal development, especially in the womb, and alterations of the nervous and immune systems. They particularly affect reproductive function in males, causing reduced sperm count, infertility and some have been classified as reprotoxic by the EU. Their oestrogenic activity, even at low concentrations can increase the breast cancer risk in women and BBzP was found to decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy in one study.

A recent review on phthalate exposure and children’s health found five studies that suggest the exposure to DEHP and BBzP may increase the risk of allergic diseases such as asthma and eczema. Six studies found that exposure to BBzP, DEHP, di-ethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-butyl phthalate (DBP) is linked to altered physical development and autistic like behaviour.
People are most at risk from harmful effects by eating or drinking foods that have been in contact with products containing phthalates; by inhaling phthalates in fragrances, nail polish and aerosols; and by absorption through the skin via cosmetics and personal care products.
Food gets contaminated by phthalates when it comes into contact with plastics from food processing and wrapping, and from being stored in plastic-containing containers. The foods most likely to contain high levels of phthalates, independent of how they are processed, are dairy products. The reason is because the tubing used for milking the cows is high in phthalates. Chicken also tends to be high in phthalates although it is not yet clear why. Phthalates are fat soluble and can concentrate in fat, so meat and cheese can have high levels. But so can spices. One study that set out to test the effect of low phthalate diet interventions unexpectedly found really high levels in ground coriander.

Epidemiological studies have found that using some personal care products can lead to high concentrations of phthalates DEP and DBP metabolites in both children and adults. One study found high levels of phthalate metabolites in infants during the 24 hours following exposure to baby lotion, powder or shampoo; the links were stronger in those under 8 months of age.
Studies on Amish women found that they had lower levels of phthalates when compared with the average woman and researchers thought these findings may be explained by their lack of cosmetic use. In one study conducted on ten pregnant Mennonite women, one of the women who used hairspray regularly was the only one to have detectable levels of MEP, a breakdown product of DEP.

Recent research suggests that the uptake of phthalates is greatest from perfume than in any other personal care product. In one study, perfume wearing women had three times as much MEP in the urine than those who did not wear perfume.

Toys are one of the main exposure routes for infants. The EU has restricted the phthalates: butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP), di-2-ehtylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate(DBP), di-isonyl phthalate (DiDP), di-n-ocyl phthalate (DNoP) in children’s toys and childcare articles since 1999. Last year, plastic toys were the subject of 290 out of 563 EU intergovernmental alerts for products containing phthalates banned for use in toys. Additionally, over 30,000 mostly Chinese dolls had to be destroyed as their phthalate levels posed a serious risk to children.

How to reduce exposure.

  • Reduce the amount of time that food is in its original packaging and transfer to a safer form of storage such as glass or stainless steel.
  • Avoid storing food in plastic containers and don’t use them to heat food or drink.
  • Don’t microwave plastics as heat increases the leaching of phthalates into the food. If heating milk for a baby’s bottle use glass and then transfer the milk to the bottle.
  • Vacuum or remove dust regularly in home as phthalates bind to house dust.
  • Use cosmetics labelled ‘phthalate-free’ and reduce or avoid use of scented products including perfumes, hairspray and air fresheners.
  • Ventilate area when using nail polish and avoid if pregnant.
  • Avoid cheap plastic toys originating from Asia, even if they display the CE label, and especially if they have a strong smell.
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