Phthalates, called "plasticizers," are a group of industrial chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or resilient and also as solvents. Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in modern society, found in, among other things, toys, food packaging, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, wall coverings, lubricants, adhesives, detergents, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo.
Phthalates have been found to disrupt the endocrine system. Several phthalate compounds have caused reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals, and some studies also link phthalates to liver cancer, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control's 2005 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Though the CDC contends the health hazards of phthalates to humans have not been definitively established, for some years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has regulated phthalates as water and air pollutants.
The Environmental Working Group has focused on phthalates since 1998, when EWG reported that dibutyl phthalate found in 37 nail polishes was also present in the bodies of every single American tested. A 2000 EWG analysis of CDC data, called Beauty Secrets, found that dibutyl phthalate was present in the bodies of every single person tested for industrial pollutants.
In 2003, EWG published its seminal Body Burden study, finding 210 industrial and consumer product chemical, among them, a half-dozen phthalates, in nine adult Americans who had agreed to submit their blood and urine to laboratory analysis. In 2007 EWG published a Parents Buying Guide, a safety guide to help parents find children's personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
In July 2008, as a result of pressure from EWG and other health groups, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning six phthalates from children's toys and cosmetics. Legislators in Washington, Vermont and California have restricted phthalate use in children's goods, and several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us, Lego, Evenflo and Gerber say they will phase out phthalate-laden toys.
EWG advocates a cumulative assessment of the human health risks, especially to infants, of phthalates. As well, EWG is working for passage of a new federal Kid-Safe Chemicals Act to reform the nation's toxic chemical law to assure that chemicals are safe for babies, children and other vulnerable groups before they are allowed on the market.
Health Effects related to Phthalates: Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), Endocrine system, Reproduction and fertility, Birth or developmental effects, Persistent and bioaccumulative, Brain and nervous system, Immune system (including sensitization and allergies)
Routes of Exposure related to Phthalates
- Air: industrial air pollution
- Consumer products: adhesives, detergents, flooring, inks, paints and coatings, plastics, rubber
- Environment: agriculture, industrial water pollution
- Miscellaneous: medical tubing, rocket propellent
- Personal care products: deodorant, fragrances, hand lotion, insect repellent, shampoo, soap
- Water: sewage sludge, tap water, water treatment
For more information, go to the Environmental Working Group: