In recent years there is a growing concern over human exposure to phthalates and their toxicity. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are colorless and odorless. They are very flexible and very difficult to break apart so mostly used in products that are long-lasting and durable. Phthalates are considered the most commonly used plasticizer, the component that makes the plastic soft, bendable, durable and soft.
Phthalates are everywhere because of their resistance and scratch-free characteristics thus they are not easy to cut out completely but you can limit them. They are known as “low” or “high” depending upon the molecular weight and length of the carbon backbone. Phthalates are present in plastic storage, in cosmetic and customer care products and become toxic especially when heated. They are very fine particles of dust that we are inhaling and ingesting as well. Skin absorption is also possible via use in cosmetics
Phthalates are classified as “low” and “high” phthalates depending upon their no of carbon atoms and molecular weight. Chemicals having a carbon backbone of 7-13 carbon atoms are known as high phthalates with increased durability and permanency so they are preferred to use for softening and plasticizing the vinyl. Some of the main types of phthalates are as follows.
- Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP)
- Diethyl Phthalate (DEP)
- Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
- Diisobutyl Phthalate (DiBP)
- Butyl Benzyl Phthalate (BBzP)
- Diisononyl phthalate (DINP)
- Di-n-octyl Phthalate (DnOP)
- Diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP)
- Di-2-ethylhexyl Phthalate (DEHP)
- Dicyclohexyl phthalate (DcHP)
- Dipentyl Phthalate (DPP)
Everything that contains Phthalates
As they offer durability so they are used in various products that demand high performance and long-lasting wear. Different types of phthalates are used in specific products due to the specific characteristics of each phthalate. The characteristics of phthalates among which it differs from one another are its use, wear, size, safety specifications, texture and durability.
- Building Materials
As already mentioned high phthalates are used to plasticize vinyl to increase durability and high performance. They tend to bind tightly into the structure of vinyl thus reducing the chances of removal or evaporation so they are preferred to use in building and construction. Mostly high phthalates are used in vinyl roofing membranes, vinyl flooring, waterproofing membranes, and electrical cord insulation.
- Plastic and Vinyl toys
One of the high-risk factors of children’s exposure to toxins of phthalates is in plastic and vinyl toys. In 2009 the US banned all kinds of toys containing more than 0.1% of high phthalates. DINP, DIDP and DNOP are the most commonly used high phthalates but are temporarily banned from toys as children are habitual of sucking these toys.
It is observed that adult women are more prone to its side effects as the use of personal care products and cosmetics is more in women. There are different types of phthalates having specific properties used in specific customer care products accordingly
- Dimethyl phthalate (reduce stiffness by forming a flexible film on the hair so used in hairsprays)
- Dibutyl phthalate (reduce cracking so use in nail polishes)
- Diethyl phthalate (solvent and fixative so used in fragrances)
According to a 2010 report of FDA, DEP is still trending to be used in cosmetics products. On the other hand, DBP and DMP are not advised to use in cosmetics.
- Wire and Cable
For PVC insulation for electrical wiring, high phthalates are strongly recommended because of their flexibility, electrical resistivity and heat resistance. For example to cover the electrical wiring of TV or computer etc
- Automobiles parts
High phthalates offer UV resistance and resistance to high temperatures so are used in Interiors like seat covers. As high phthalates offer water and weather resistance as well so recommended for underbody PVC components in automobiles.
- Outdoor Products
Due to the flexibility offered by high phthalates, PVC offers well in changing environments by resisting degradation at high temperatures and maintaining at cold temperatures. Thus High phthalates PVC products are found in many outdoor items including swimming pool liners, garden hoses, and rain boots.
- Food Packaging and Wrap
Food packaging especially milk plastic containers that might have phthalates to make packaging UV resistant and durable. Recent research shows that milk can be a source of dietary exposure to DEHP. As DEHP is very lipophilic so milk lipids make bonds with it and remove it out of the plastic into the milk.
- Shower curtains
Phthalates are tightly enclosed in vinyl shower curtains so they are less volatile ensuring more durability and permanency
High phthalates are recommended for manufacturing coated textiles to ensure weather resistance.
Other than the above-mentioned products phthalates are also present in raincoats, mini blinds, wallpaper, lubricating oils, detergents, adhesives, insecticides, plastic wear pipes, air fresheners, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing etc.
Contact with Phthalates
- Ingestion through food and water packaged in plastic containers
- Skin absorption when touching phthalates or using phthalate containing personal care products or cosmetic
- Children can ingest by using plastic or vinyl toys so they are at greater risk
- Breathing in dust particles with phthalates from home materials and items
Phthalates are either safe or not. It is not as simple to explain because it is not a single chemical; it’s a group of chemicals. Every chemical has its effects; some like BBP, DBP and DEHP due to adverse effects are permanently banned. The by-products or metabolites of phthalates ingested or absorbed are excreted through urine. Their effects are studied under different government and private research institutes and regulatory authorities. Some of the main health hazards linked with phthalates
- Abnormal Reproductive Development
Androgens and estrogens determine gender and phthalates are found to be linked with gender bending. Unborn babies and children are most affected by the ingestion or absorption of phthalates. Studies show if babies are more exposed to the high level of phthalates like DiNP in the womb with baby boys, they tend to develop more feminine characteristics. Thus it does more harm to unborn male babies. Another study shows that DnOP might be associated with endometriosis in women
- Skin Problems
Skin problems like skin irritation and redness are mostly caused by DBP.
Nausea, dizziness and vomiting is reported to be caused by DIDP
- Breast cancer
Studies found breast cancer’s association with BBP and DEHP.
Tumors are correlated with DINP. Clinical trials are still ongoing regarding that.
Other than above mentioned health hazards phthalates are also found to linked with the enlarged liver, early puberty, suppressed immune system, neurological toxicity in kids and adults and endocrine disruption
As mentioned above once ingested or absorbed, phthalates come out in the form of metabolites via urine. The concentration of those metabolites is evaluated to confirm the health-related risks. Thus biomonitoring is mandatory to help scientists and drug regulatory agencies to research phthalates and their health hazards.
Recent studies on phthalates and their toxicity concern revealed that high phthalates are considered safe to use in lower amounts. The product containing phthalates must contain a low concentration set by regulatory authorities to minimize the chances of toxicity. Various drug regulatory agencies published reports regarding the use of phthalates and toxicity concerns. Some are as follows
- A study conducted by the National Toxicological Program in 2000 declared that the chances of reproductive risk due to phthalates at lower concentrations are minimal.
- European chemical agency (ECA) published a report in 2013 stating that there is no possible health concern linked with the use of DINP and DIDP
- Similarly, another report by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in 2017 declared most commonly used phthalates DINP and DIDP safe to use
- In 2017 report is published by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that confirmed that DIDP in toys and sensitive items causes no harm to children and adults
- European Chemical Agency (ECHA) Risk Assessment Committee published a report in 2018 suggesting that DINP shows no hazardous effects on reproductive or fertility systems
Good ways to avoid phthalates
It is better to use natural products and replace plastic. We can take small steps forward to make real changes to remove it from your house. Some of the tips are as follows
- Shop for natural material like 100% rubber, metal or wood
- Shop at trusted vendors
- Shop cosmetics and personal care products that are 100% natural or organic
- Avoid products with a recycling label of V or PVC. Mostly phthalates are not included in labels. Some come with the acronym like DHEP or DiBP. Try to choose the item with a “phthalates-free” label
- Look for non PVC toys. It is mandatory to ban any toys that contain phthalates
- For blood transfusion ask for phthalates-free equipment.
As phthalates are everywhere chemical from building materials to cosmetics, so they cannot be avoided completely. So it is recommended to use only those that are declared safe to use by regulatory authorities.