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title pic The Phthalates Debate

Posted by Fiona Cole on April 28, 2011

The Phthalates Debate

Not everybody knows what phthalates are (and even fewer people know how to pronounce the word — hint: the “ph” is pretty much silent), yet phthalates are present in many consumer products that we all use on a daily basis. Ongoing studies are being conducted to investigate the possibility that phthalates are carcinogenic and might negatively affect human reproductive systems. Recent articles in the media have refuted this claim. But while the debate continues, it’s worth taking a closer look at what all the fuss is about.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used in plastic items and other materials. In plastic and vinyl products, phthalates are used as a softener, increasing the flexibility of the material. So, that means anything plastic and pliable in your home — such as a shower curtain, children’s toys, plastic wrap, vinyl rain coats, etc. — most likely contains phthalates.

Phthalates are also used in hundreds of personal care products, such as hair spray, shampoo, soap, nail polish and perfume. Phthalates are used in skin lotions to make the lotion spread more easily on our skin and they are used in cosmetics to enhance the retention of color in make-up products.

You know that new car smell? Phthalates can also be found in the soft material that covers the interior of your car — even in your dashboard and steering wheel. Phthalates are part of the reason why that new car smell lingers. Phthalates can be found in cleaning products, insecticides and vinyl flooring.

Phthalates are everywhere! They are in our environment and they are in us — meaning that they are detectable in human blood samples. They leach into the air we breathe and the food we eat. They are even found in milk products, one theory being that they come from the plastic tubing used in the milking machines at dairy farms.

So, given their pervasive presence in our daily lives, it makes sense that we should want to know what the potential problems might be. Research has suggested links between higher levels of phthalates in pregnant women and a birth defect known as hypospadias, a defect of the male baby’s urethra. Phthalates have been associated with low sperm counts and low testosterone in adult males. Some scientists are also concerned about the possibility that phthalates may be carcinogenic.

To make matters worse, law does not dictate that phthalates are listed as an ingredient on product labels, so it is hard to know exactly how much you are exposing yourself and your family to.

Phthalates, it seems, are impossible to escape. But while scientists and industry advocates battle it out to decide whether we should be exposing ourselves to this product, we can take steps to empower ourselves as consumers:

  1. Where possible, reduce the amount of soft plastic or vinyl items in your home — e.g., use paper bags for lunch and glass containers for leftover food. Use natural oils instead of lotion to moisturize your skin, such as coconut or almond, and buy green cleaning products.
  2. Check the company websites of any products you are unsure about and contact them to ask if their products are phthalate-free. Some beauty product and children’s toy manufacturers, for example, have voluntarily opted to remove phthalates from all of their products.
  3. Do your own research on the subject and be sure to check the sources of anything you read.
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