Ortho-phthalates, commonly referred to as phthalates (pronounced THAL-eights), are a group of chemicals that are used to make plastics, primarily polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), flexible. The chemicals also serve other purposes, including as solvents in fragrances for personal care and cleaning products.
These chemicals are used in many different consumer products and they migrate out easily. That’s why they’re found in food—after migrating from food processing equipment and packaging. This is concerning because exposure to phthalates is linked to a range of serious health issues. Though phthalates can affect everyone, exposures may do the greatest harm in pregnant women. Their children may be born with behavioral issues and lower IQ. Boys whose mothers are exposed to phthalates could be born with reproductive tract defects. Children are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of phthalates because they eat more than adults do, relative to body weight, and are still growing and developing.
Most U.S. agencies and state governments aren’t doing what they can to protect us from exposure to phthalates. Since food is the largest source of exposure and dairy has been found to have some of the highest levels, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and other groups are calling on grocery and restaurant chains to eliminate phthalates in food and food packaging. We are also part of a coalition of groups calling on Kraft Foods to “klean” up its act and eliminate ANY and ALL sources of phthalates in its foods. Sign the petition here!
What products are phthalates found in?
Phthalates are found in hundreds of products. They are largely used as plasticizers to make plastic, primarily polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), soft, flexible, and harder to break, and can also be added to products for a variety of other purposes, including as solvents.
Food is the leading source of exposure. Phthalates have been found in dairy products, meats, fish, oils & fats, baked goods, infant formula, processed foods, and fast foods. Phthalates are not intentionally added ingredients but rather “indirect” food additives. They easily escape from food processing equipment, food packaging, and food preparation materials, and contaminate food at points all along the supply chain. This includes food-processing equipment, such as PVC tubing used in milking and to transfer milk between farms and processing plants. Phthalates are also found in some food packaging and preparation materials, such as PVC gloves used to prepare food and adhesives and printing inks on packaging. Recycled cardboard food packaging may have higher concentrations of phthalates than virgin cardboard.
Other products include:
- Vinyl building products such as wall coverings, carpeting and roofing materials
- Personal care products, used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances (although the product’s ingredient list may not specify any phthalates since the single term “fragrance” can include phthalates and hundreds of other chemicals)
- Children’s back-to-school supplies made out of vinyl
- Office supplies such as vinyl 3-ring binders and paper clips
- Medical equipment, such as IV bags, blood bags & tubing
- Pharmaceuticals where phthalates help localize medication release
- Older toys and other child care products like teethers
- Home maintenance and building products, including paints and primers
- Cleaning products such as detergents
How am I exposed to phthalates?
Phthalates are ubiquitous and cumulative exposure is already too high, according to government risk assessments conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the European Food Safety Authority.
Scientists agree that most people are mainly exposed to phthalates from the food we eat. Phthalates have been found in dairy products, meats, fish, oils & fats, baked goods, infant formula, processed foods, and fast foods. This is true even if the food is organic. Phthalates are added to some food packaging and to materials used to handle and process food. These chemicals are more likely to move out of packaging or equipment and into food that is high in fat. Recent research found that people who frequently eat out may have higher levels of phthalates in their bodies than those who don’t. Phthalates may also be found in unprocessed food such as fish because the chemicals are common environmental pollutants.
Household dust and indoor air are also notable sources of exposure. Phthalates may be released from building products including vinyl flooring, vinyl carpet backing, and lacquers. People may breathe in the chemicals directly or inhale or ingest dust in which the chemicals have concentrated.
Children may be more affected because of their hand-to-mouth behavior. Because young children put their hands in their mouths, they may have higher exposure from dust contaminated with phthalates.
What are the possible health impacts?
Studies conducted by federal scientists have found that up to 725,000 American women of childbearing age may be exposed to 5 phthalates at levels that could harm the health of their baby, should they be pregnant.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association have warned about the health effects of phthalates on children. Since kids eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing, they’re more sensitive to the effects of phthalates.
Not all phthalates have the same effects on health. Below is a list of effects linked to one or more of these chemicals.
- Endocrine disruption. Some phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). In other words, they interfere with hormones that play very important roles in growth and development. In 2017, the European Union officially designated four phthalates as human endocrine disrupting chemicals.
- Abnormalities in the male reproductive system. Pregnant women with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies may give birth to boys who have a condition linked to poor sperm quality and reduced fertility.
- Damage to the DNA in sperm. Adult men’s exposure to phthalates has been linked to reduced integrity in sperm DNA.
- Reduced testosterone levels and altered thyroid hormone production. Studies have linked phthalate exposure to large reductions in testosterone levels. At least one study found this was true even in women for certain age groups. Various phthalates have also been tied to changes in thyroid hormone production. Thyroid hormones are crucial for proper growth, brain development and metabolism.
- Neurodevelopmental effects in infants or children. Pregnant women exposed to phthalates may give birth to children with behavioral and cognitive issues. These effects can include ADHD-like behaviors, aggression, depression, a lower IQ, and autism.
- Liver and kidney toxicity. Certain phthalates are linked to adverse impacts on the liver and kidney in laboratory animals.
- Cancer. At least two phthalates are linked to liver and other types of cancer.
- Asthma. Studies have linked phthalate exposure to asthma or other respiratory symptoms (see here and here).
What is the government doing about this?
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Congress have limited exposure from toys and other products for children. Effective in 2009, Congress banned toys, teethers, sleep aids, and feeding aids with more than 0.1% of three phthalates. The CPSC extended the ban, effective April 2018, to cover five more phthalates that harm male reproductive development.
- States in the U.S. have also acted on a similar set of products. California and Vermont prohibit the manufacture, sale or distribution of certain toys, teethers, sleep aids or feeding aids with more than 0.1% of two phthalates that are not restricted at the federal level. Washington State prohibits phthalates in a broader array of products.
- S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still allows phthalates in food contact materials. This agency lets companies use a large number of phthalates in food packaging and handling equipment as “indirect food additives” through regulations adopted 30 to 50 years ago based on outdated safety data. In 2016, SCHF partners and other organizations petitioned the agency to stop allowing this use, but FDA hasn’t issued a final decision. By contrast, FDA is more cautious about medical devices, as the agency has warned against the use of devices containing DEHP for procedures involving male neonates or other sensitive patients.
- The European Union has been more proactive. The government restricts five phthalates in plastic food contact materials unless they only migrate into food at low levels, but even these phthalates are largely prohibited in plastic materials that come into contact with fatty foods. The EU currently restricts certain phthalates in toys and certain other items for children. In July 2019, the EU will start restricting phthalate levels in most electrical and electronic equipment. Four phthalates are currently on track to be restricted in a variety of additional products.
What can I do?
In response to our Mind the Store campaign, a number of retailers are taking action on phthalates in building materials, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Thanks to advocates like you, in 2015, more than a dozen major home improvement and flooring retailers such as The Home Depot, Lowe’s and Lumber Liquidators agreed to stop selling vinyl flooring with added phthalates. The presence of phthalates in flooring is especially concerning for babies and kids who spend a lot of time on the floor. Walmart, Target, and CVS Health are working to eliminate certain phthalates in cosmetics and/or cleaning products.
But there’s still work to be done! Food is the largest source of people’s exposure to phthalates. We’ve partnered with Environmental Health Strategy Center and other public health groups for the Klean Up Kraft campaign. We’re calling on Kraft Foods to eliminate ANY and ALL sources of phthalates that may end up in their foods. Sign the petition here!
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and other groups are also calling on grocery and restaurant chains to eliminate phthalates in food and food packaging. You can contact your favorite grocery stores, restaurant chains, and food brands to ask them what they’re doing to eliminate phthalates from their products. If you hear back, please email us at email@example.com.
How can I reduce my exposure to phthalates?
Since phthalates are found in a wide variety of products and foods as well as the environment, it is nearly impossible to avoid them entirely. Instead, grocery stores, restaurant chains, and other food companies need to identify and eliminate all sources of phthalates in food and other consumer products. But there are some simple steps you can take that may reduce your exposure to these toxic chemicals.
- Eat less processed food and cook more. Many nutritionists recommend eating a balanced diet and reducing consumption of highly processed foods in order to promote good health. That general advice may also reduce exposure to phthalates associated with food processing. For example, studies have shown that eating out, including at fast food outlets, is linked with higher phthalate exposure. However, since phthalates are reportedly pervasive in many types of food products, a system-wide solution is needed.
- Just remember, bad news comes in threes – don’t buy PVC (A.K.A. vinyl) plastics (resin #3). Flexible PVC flooring, wall coverings, shower curtains, children’s school supplies, and other items that are made from this material are more likely to be softened with phthalates.
- Avoid the ingredients “fragrance” and “parfum.” Phthalates can be hidden in fragrances in many products – and in almost all states, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what’s in the fragrance. Avoid products containing synthetic fragrance – from perfume to shampoo to laundry detergent. The safest route is buying products with a Safer Choice seal that are specifically labeled “fragrance-free.” Even “unscented” isn’t good enough – this can just mean that chemicals are used to cover up the smell of other ingredients.
- Buy “phthalate-free”. Several companies sell personal care products marketed as “phthalate-free,” so look for those as well.
- Avoid hand-me-down plastic toys and other kids’ products. Three phthalates were banned from items like toys, teethers and the like only in 2009 – and it took until 2018 for five more to be banned. Reuse is good for the environment but stick to toys that are wooden or another non-plastic material. Pro tip: carrot or celery sticks make great teethers!