Phthalates (pronounced ‘thalates’) are a group of chemicals which hit the headlines a few years ago when they were proven to be able to migrate from the product of origin into the human body. Of particular concern at this time was the fact that they were used in babies teats and dummies which are obviously constantly in and out of their mouth.
Since then there has been a crack-down on using phthalates in products designed for children under 3 years of age in both Europe and this year, the US. However, they are still to be found in a wide range of other items and for some people, are a huge cause for concern.
What Are Phthalates?
Phthalates are a set of chemicals commonly known as ‘plasticisers’. They take the form of an odourless, colourless liquid a little bit like oil and are most often incorporated into plastics to make it supple and bendy and soft in texture.
Phthalates with a smaller molecule are also used as a fixative for products such as perfumes.
Two of the chemicals – DEHP and DBP have been banned from certain products and others are restricted but some phthalates, whose risk assessment is deemed lower, are still very much in use.
In Which Sort Of Products Are Phthalates Found?
Phthalates are used to make things more flexible and are most commonly found in PVC. But other uses include adding it to safety glass to make it more forgiving and nail varnish to help make it ‘anti-chip’.
- PVC and vinyl products
- Glues and inks
- Cosmetics and Toiletries
- Bendy plastics such as electrical wiring etc
- Medical equipment such as blood bags and tubing
Why Are Phthalates A Cause of Concern?
The problem with phthalates is that they have been found to belong to a group of chemicals which can affect the delicate balance of the hormonal system. Their effects have been long-established in animals and are also thought to be endocrine disrupters in humans as well.
The problem is that the chemicals do not chemically bond and can therefore ‘escape’ from the product and enter the environment. Because of their widespread use for over 50 years, they are now very prevalent in the environment – found in homes, rivers, groundwater etc – and have also been found in humans.
In addition, rather than biodegrading, phthalates ‘bio accumulate’ because they do not break down easily. So our exposure to them is increasing as the numbers gradually build up.
While the industries that use them vociferously deny that they can be damaging to our health, many environmental scientists disagree and feel that many more phthalates should be severely restricted or banned. At the very least, their use should be reigned back until any potential detrimental effects can be established one way or another.
Environmental Effects Of Phthalates
Phthalates are known to disrupt the thyroid function and block the production of Testosterone (the male sex hormone) whilst mimicking the action of oestrogen. The contamination with phthalates in animals has been found to alter their sex and/or impair male functionality and the harm to aquatic life is well documented. This effect is now also being linked to a sharp fall in the male sperm production of humans in recent years, as well as other things.
Exposure to certain phthalates whilst in utero has also been shown to affect normal brain development in rats and mice and there is understandable concern for humans since phthalates have been found in much higher levels than anticipated in women’s bodies, when tested for.
What You Should Do
The Phthalate debate is not clear-cut. It has certainly been proven that some types of phthalates are more harmful than others and do cause health issues, but there are still question marks over others.
If you are at all concerned, do check the labelling and ingredients on your cosmetics and actively search out products which are phthalate free. You should also be particularly careful if you are expecting a baby or likely to become pregnant and make sure that any young children are not playing with toys that may contain such chemicals.
The main thing is to be aware, read the pros and cons, and if you feel strongly about the potential effects of phthalates on you, the environment, or new generations from these types of chemicals, support a campaigning group such as Greenpeace.