Have you seen children’s waterproofs labelled “NO PVC” ? Or perhaps you’ve heard that you shouldn’t re-use plastic water bottles, shouldn’t microwave in plastic, or shouldn’t leave plastic in the car? You’ve probably heard the advice before and , like me, didn’t know why. Well, these thing are likely to have been suggestions to help you avoid phthalates, the potentially endocrine-disrupting plasticisers.
Phthalates are an ingredient in consumer plastics, despite the scientific debate around their potential to be endocrine disruptors. As with BPA there is insufficient labeling of phthalates to assist consumers who would like to choose to play it safe. We all have phthalate metabolites in our urine – evidence of phthalate exposure – the only question is “how much?”
Phthalate esters are plasticisers widely used for a whole host of applications in a wide range of products, including PETE (Recycle 1) food containers, PVC (Recycle 3) building materials and in personal care products (for the various emulsifying/gelling/suspension/dispersion/lubricant qualities and to make fragrances last longer). What’s a plasticiser? It’s designed to soften hard plastics. In other words, it’s one of the ingredients that makes lovely squishy baby toys squishy.
Children’s exposure is higher than adults’. Babies’ mouthing behaviour, the use of baby care products, the higher dosage-for-size, the lower metabolic capability and their still-developing endocrine and reproductive systems combine to make babies much more susceptible to potential effects. There’s also evidence to suggest that pregnant women might want to be careful too (see below).
Identification of phthalate use is non-existent in many product categories, especially building materials and food packaging. Without a statement from the manufacturer, only gas chromatography can confirm the presence or absence of phthalates. I am not aware of any handy services which allow consumers to bring in a small sample of their old vinyl flooring from home to be tested.
The international regulatory environment is fractured. Unfortunately, where consumers would prefer caution and transparency, a ban in one jurisdiction is typically met with evidentiary hair-splitting and self-justification in others. Commercial interests continue to be protected by the ongoing obfuscation of phthalate use. Meanwhile consumers who would like to choose to be cautious have no viable way of accurately identifying their phthalate exposure.
The effects of phthalates on humans are still under investigation. They are thought to be endocrine disruptors, linked to ‘fetal changes’, insulin resistance, metabolic disruption and allergies and asthma in children. See Wikipedia: phthalate for details.
There is clearly a lack of good faith dialogue between consumer concerns and commercial interests in the area of phthalates. Even finding words to describe this issue simply and accurately is difficult. What does “fetal changes” mean? I certainly hope I didn’t accidentally misuse someone’s jargon there. It would have been simpler to say “birth defects” but those words are both alarmist, and they have a specific scientific meaning. Wikipedia cites a study which found human phthalate exposure during pregnancy resulted in decreased anogenital distance among baby boys. That sounds like evidence of potential birth defects to me. Wikipedia goes on to say:
“An editorial concerning this paper in the same volume stated that the study population was small, and “needs to be investigated more thoroughly in a larger, more diverse population”. While anogenital distance is routinely used as a measure of fetal exposure to endocrine disruptors in animals, this parameter is rarely assessed in humans, and its significance is doubtful.”
The American Chemistry Council’s Q&A however, assures us that this study “failed to establish a causal link”. It also says:
“Q. Aren’t phthalates endocrine disruptors?
A. In lab tests with rodents, phthalates do not block the action of male or female hormones, or mimic their behavior.” [full stop, next question]
Perhaps the answer is to be found with Our Stolen Future, which argues the need for a paradigm shift in the methods, assumptions and standards used in assessing the safety of phthalate esters.
Phthalates are easily released from plastics, but they don’t hang around long out-doors. Their low solubility in water, and the fact that an adult can metabolise them in minutes, are also probably contributing factors informing the traditional view that phthalates are safe to use in plastics. It’s also worth mentioning that phthalate release from plastics increases as the plastic degrades over time and in sunlight. Phthalate release from vinyl flooring is increased by the use of polish, and the phthalates also hang around in dust. The low solubility of phthalates in water may explain why PETE is the main choice of plastic for commercially bottled water and soft drinks. However, with the high solubility of phthalates in oil, I am very concerned that PETE (aka Polyethylene terephthalate) is also the packaging of choice for cooking oil in my local supermarket.
More technical information (and referencing) is available in the Wikipedia: Phthalates article. What are some phthalate-reduction suggestions?
Reducing my family’s phthalate exposure
There are plenty of websites on how to reduce your phthalate exposure. Just Google “phthalate free” or “avoid phthalate”. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid phthalates completely, and any advice on this topic is values-laden and context-specific. So this list is most relevant to me and people like me.
Reduce baby’s direct exposure: don’t use baby care products (unless you’ve read the contents and the container is glass or you’ve checked the container’s plastic type). This is easier than you might think, since most baby wash, baby shampoo, baby moisturizer, baby powder, nappy cream, baby cologne, et cetera is completely unnecessary. I use bath oil, bicarbonate of soda and sometimes a little nappy cream and that’s all.
Don’t give baby any PVC vinyl products to play with, wear, eat from or sleep on. This includes toys, bibs, art smocks, rain coats, nappy covers, change mats, mattress protectors, plastic table protectors, hand bags, shoes, cubby-houses, place mats and funky bean-bags. Sure, not all PVC contains phthalates, but phthalates are the cheapest and most commonly used plasticisers in PVC, so unless a product is very specifically marketed as Phthalate Free it probably does contain them.
Reduce the phthalate levels in your home environment by avoiding the use of vinyl flooring. If you have a good condition vinyl floor, avoid dust build up, and DO NOT use floor polish products. This is important, there are studies linking phthalate exposure to the use of floor polish. My place is cleaned with nothing stronger than eucalyptus oil, a mop and a vacuum cleaner. Another common use of vinyl you might not think of is your shower curtain. I made my own using some bargain nylon dressmaking fabric – it’s beautiful and it works just fine.
My family gets cars second hand, and I’m sure this helps too. Vinyl is used extensively in cars and that new car smell which lasts anything up to a couple of years is quite revolting to my nostrils. I don’t have a definitive reference as to the off-gassing profile on cars over time, or if phthalates can reliably be detected by smell. I can say with certainty that you should avoid dashboard polish products. I get my car cleaned occasionally, but I don’t let them do the inside any more, as they invariably use polish products.
Ventilation is important. This includes your home and your car. Houses are little pollution traps and the outside air is usually cleaner. Sunlight also degrades phthalates. If the weather or other local conditions make it impossible for you to ventilate daily, you’ll need to pay a lot more attention to removing phthalates from your home.
Personal care products, including cosmetics, also deserve a mention. Your own health is worth looking after, and pregnant women might be especially interested in their phthalate exposure. Nail polish, hair spray and perfumes keep coming up as the main sources of phthalates in cosmetics. But it’s not that simple. According to think before you pink, the trade secrets loophole allows any fragranced cosmetic product to contain phthalates without explicitly listing them. Personally, I’ve been seeking fragrance-free products for years. The only cosmetics I use these days are a simple olive oil soap, organic toothpaste, an unpackaged sulphate-free conditioner base and occasionally some Sorboline.
Polyethylene terephthalate: PETE and polyester. I don’t know enough about the potential for phthalates to off-gas or leach from PETE and polyester, but it’s definitely on my list of things to check out. At the moment I’m making sure that I buy my cooking oil in glass, and I’m trying to reduce my reliance on those handy little pop-top drinking bottles. I’m also making a point of not leaving drink bottles to heat up in the car, throwing them away at the first hint of a smell, and not re-using them too many times. I haven’t yet seen enough evidence to get me riffling through the baby clothes to weed out the polyester. I’m not buying any more polyester if I can help it, but culling the existing clothes would be a big undertaking. [Ed: I do avoid all polyester clothes already.]
It’s not easy being a mum. Nurse, teacher, bodyguard, lawyer, and now, apparently, I get to be a research chemist as well!