This group of chemicals is useful for making plastics more flexible, harder, or more durable. But their effects on people may not be so good.
There’s a lot of confusion about esters of phthalic acid AKA phthalates. First of all, just figuring out how to pronounce the word “phthalate” isn’t all that easy. It’s THAL-ate. The initial “ph” is silent. (It’s also easy to misspell–thalate, phalate, even fthalate.)
Second, there’s not just one phthalate, but a group of chemicals that go by this name. They are found in hundreds of products, from vinyl flooring to lubricating oils to plastic raincoats. One area where they’re used widely is polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs). These are in turn used to make products such as plastic packaging film, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children’s toys.
But despite their usefulness in manufacturing, phthalates have been shown to have harmful effects in humans. A 2012 study found that women working in the automotive and food-canning industries have nearly a fivefold increase in risk for premenopausal breast cancer, likely because of their exposure to phthalates, BPA and flame-retardants (more info here). Phthalates have also been linked to birth defects, asthma, neurodevelopmental problems in newborns, fertility issues, and obesity.
There’s one more area where phthalates are widely used and poses an even greater concern–personal care products. They’re included in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes. These products can present even more of a toxin risk because phthalates are readily absorbed through the skin.
As expected, research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in personal care products.
You might ask, “If phthalates are so dangerous, why are they still being used?” The answer is they’re being phased out. The use of phthalates has been banned in children’s products in California and manufacturers are replacing them in other products as well. But in the mean time, it’s a good idea to proactively limit your own exposure.
And to do that you need to educate yourself.
A good place to start is this collection of articles on How to Avoid Bisphenol A and Phthalates over at the Daily Green.