Phthalates

Phthalates, often referred to as plasticizers, are a family of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. Phthalates are made from alcohols and phthalic anhydride. They are colorless, odorless, oily liquids. The following are common phthalates:

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) phthalates are produced in high volume, over 470 million pounds per year. Hundreds of consumer products use phthalates. These products include: cosmetics and personal care products, including perfume, hairspray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, and skin moisturizers; flexible plastic and vinyl toys; shower curtains; wallpaper; vinyl mini blinds; food packaging; and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring. Some phthalates are also used as solvents for other materials.

Due to their use in a vast number of products, potential for exposure is high. In fact, researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population, confirming that phthalate exposure is extensive in the U.S. population.

People are exposed to phthalates through ingestion, inhalation and dermal contact. Oral exposure occurs when people eat and drink from containers and products that have been in contact with phthalates. To a lesser extent, exposure can occur from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles. Exposure can also occur through direct contact from personal care products such as perfumes, soaps and shampoos.

Health Effects

Studies on the potential association of exposure to phthalates with human and animal health have been conducted on some phthalate and metabolites. There are a number of phthalates and metabolites that have not yet been tested, however. Therefore, the human health effects are not yet fully understood.

Due to concerns that certain phthalates may act as endocrine disruptors Congress required the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to convene a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) to assess the risk of phthalates and phthalate alternatives. CHAP based findings on evidence of effects on male reproductive development and essentially concluded that three types of phthalates DEHP, DBP, and BBP are probable human carcinogens. Congress permanently banned all three in any amount greater than 0.1 percent (computed for each phthalate individually) in: (1) children's toys, and (2) any child care article that is designed or intended by the manufacturer to facilitate sleep or the feeding of children age 3 and younger, or to help children age 3 and younger with sucking or teething. These findings were mostly learned from studies of rats and mice.

Congress has also banned on an interim basis three additional phthalates: DINP, DIDP, and DnOP in any amount greater than 0.1 percent (computed for each phthalate individually) in: (1) any children's toy that can be placed in a child's mouth, and (2) any child care article that is designed or intended by the manufacturer to facilitate sleep or the feeding of children age 3 and younger, or to help children age 3 and younger with sucking or teething.

The CHAP did not recommend that CPSC take any action with respect to these DPHP, DMP, and DEP; however, it did encourage federal agencies to obtain additional information and monitor exposure to these chemicals and other phthalates.

Avoiding exposure

One way to avoid exposure is to identify what kinds of plastics are being used to store food, water and other personal products. This can be done by looking for the American Chemistry Council pastic resin code on the product. Plastics made of polypropylene (plastic resin code "5") is usually phthalate free.

Common exposure thresholds

Common exposure thresholds have not yet been determined. Scientists continue to measure phthalate metabolites in urine through biomonitoring. Finding a detectable amount of phthalate metabolites in urine does not necessarily imply that levels will cause an adverse health effect. Instead, these studies provide physicians and public health officials with baseline values to determine whether people have been exposed to higher levels of these chemicals than are found in the general population. Biomonitoring data can also increase understanding of phthalate exposure and health effects.

Sources of additional information:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

National Institute of Health (NIH)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)

Papers

Last update: April 20, 2016