Many natural and organic products boldly and proudly declare themselves to be phthalate-free. They clearly intend for consumers to see this as a positive and an important reason for their product to be the top choice. But what is a ‘phthalate’ and should we really care whether a product has them or not?
Phthalates are a large group of chemicals that are used primarily in industrial processing. Their main function is to soften PVC plastic so that it can be used in a more flexible, malleable form. The second function is as a solvent, meaning it can dissolve substances so that they can be more easily mixed or blended and bind them where they are needed.
The problem with phthalates is that they have been linked to a lot of different health disorders. Actually, they’ve been linked to nearly every big health disorder of the last twenty years. These include asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity, type II diabetes, mental handicaps, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral problems, autism spectrum disorders, androgyny and altered testicular development in boys, and male fertility issues. Phthalates are potent endocrine disruptors. This means that they mimic and interfere with our hormone systems. This interference in our body can cause cancer, birth defects, developmental problems, and tumors. Basically they hijack a crucial part of our body’s internal mechanism.
Not all phthalates are considered as dangerous as others. However several of the more common ones have been evaluated as highly dangerous and carcinogenic, only to be replaced with others which have proved to be just as bad.
At least they can’t be very common if they’re so harmful. Think again. Phthalates are found in products all around us, from IV bags and medical tubing, to children’s toys, to nearly 70% of our cosmetics and hygiene products. More specifically, they’re in conventional perfume, hair spray, soap, shampoo, nail polish, skin moisturizers, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl blinds and flooring, food packaging, plastic wrap, wood finishes, detergents, glue, plumbing pieces, lubricants, milk containers, dairy products and some spices. Phthalates are especially tricky because they float freely in whatever they are used in and are highly fat-soluble. This means that they pass very easily from a plastic container to whatever is inside, especially if that something inside is full of lipids.
All of these factors make phthalates nearly impossible to avoid. To make matters even worse, the effects of phthalate damage are shown to be cumulative, so even a little bit of exposure, from so many different constant sources of introduction, put people at severe risk.
Thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of legislators, the United States government has banned certain phthalates from use in children’s toys. This is a huge gain because they used to be used specifically in infant products: everything from pacifiers to teething rings! This ban, as well as extensive research and evaluation into each different phthalate and its effects, has come from a major push within the US government for the FDA and manufacturing organizations to research the potential damage of different kinds of phthalates. This research keeps turning up more and more reasons why this chemical family is incredibly dangerous for humans and should be replaced with less toxic alternatives. The government is continuing to fight to have these products labeled first, and re-formulated without phthalates second. This is a long and time-consuming process though and, as it stands, phthalates do not even need to be labeled on food, cosmetics, or any other materials. In fact, they are one of the many chemicals that is somehow regularly absorbed under the catch all ingredient ‘fragrance’ on ingredient listings.
The people at the most risk are those receiving regular blood and IV transfusions in medical facilities. The exposure to the tubing material and medical bags is a major source of contamination, but those at the greatest risk of adverse reactions are children.
Young boys in particular, from the womb on up, can have significant reproductive development issues, including abnormal testicular development. For this reason, it is important that pregnant women and families with young children avoid phthalate-loaded products as much as possible. Even creams and lotions labeled ‘for babies’ can contain huge quantities of phthalates! The only way to really know if a product contains these chemicals or not is if they specifically label one way or the other. Even then, it is important to note what kind of container is being used, because phthalates can be spread into a product after it’s manufactured by almost any kind of flexible plastic.
Men can also have major long-term damage from the accumulation of phthalates, especially in the form of reproductive and fertility problems. These can be related to internal genital birth defects from infancy, or continued exposure over a lifetime that leads to sterility. Either way, the result is devastating. A chemical so terribly damaging should never be allowed to be so ubiquitous.
In addition to the problems already mentioned, phthalates work their harm just as severely on women. The community damage factor means damage to one is damage to all, especially if that damage is done to your husband or children. Women in particular seem to accumulate higher levels of phthalates, due to the general use of more cosmetics and products that rely on them. This greater exposure translates to greater incidence of cancer and other side effects from phthalate use.
Can you believe that something so harmful is so near to you in so many things? This is why it is important to make an effort to avoid phthalates, even if you can’t eliminate them completely. Every little bit makes a difference.
So maybe next time you see that phthalate-free label, you will understand its value and jump on the opportunity. It’s an opportunity not to poison yourself and your family. Until further legislature gets it off the shelves, that little label is all you have.