On the surface, phthalates may sound like a good thing. After all, these odorless, colorless chemicals make plastic flexible, durable, and transparent, and all of these traits can be good for many products, right? Unfortunately, these benefits come at a very high price to our health and well-being. What can we do? Knowing where these chemicals hide and avoiding them as much as possible is a good start.
About 95 percent of people have detectable levels of phthalates in their urine. Researchers have linked phthalate exposure to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, behavioral issues, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, obesity, and reproductive problems, among other health concerns. That’s why it’s important for you and your family to recognize where phthalates can be found, including those surprising places like those mentioned here.
Where are phthalates found?
Phthalates are plastic softeners. They are found in hundreds of our everyday products, such as plastic food containers, plastic toys, vinyl shower curtains, flooring, cosmetics, fragrances and items with a fragrance, nail polish, personal care products, lubricating oils, and detergents, to name just a few. Some of the different forms of phthalates include DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate), among others. You won't be able to find them on product labels because they are rarely are listed on a package.
Surprising places phthalates hide
Along with the “usual” places you can expect to find phthalates, like those named above, there are some that may surprise you. For example:
Automobiles: We know you’re probably not going to give up your car, but our favorite mode of transportation is loaded with phthalates. Everything from the dashboard to the seats (unless you have leather), steering wheel, floor mats, and trim are plastic.
TIP: Clean the inside of your car frequently using a vacuum and damp rag and natural cleaner to reduce dust, which is where much of the phthalates are found as they exit the plastics.
Chicken. Is there plastic in your baked chicken? Although phthalates are found in beef, pork, and other meats, chicken came out on top in at least one analysis. In fact, all types of phthalates except one were detected in poultry samples taken.
TIP: The best way to avoid phthalates from chicken is to buy organic free-range chicken raised in a pasture on a natural diet, not feed that could be contaminated by phthalates in their storage container. Even better, buy locally or at your farmer's market where there is likely to be minimal processing during packaging.
Computers. Some of the cords and cables that connect your computer and peripherals are coated in vinyl, which contains phthalates.
TIP: More and more of us are going wireless (which comes with its own set of potential health problems), but there are still a lot of cables out there! Another good sign is that electronic makers are taking toxins out of their products, so look for those who are cleaning up their act. In addition, wash your hands often during the day when working with or around computers.
Indoor air. It appears we are exposed to phthalates in indoor air, and not only through breathing them in, but by absorbing them through our skin as well. Airborne phthalates come from off-gassing of products in the home, office, and other indoor settings that contain this chemical, such as flooring, wallpaper, adhesives, lubricating oils, electronics, and vinyl shower curtains. In fact, phthalate exposure via indoor air is greater than that of outdoor air.
TIP: Use of HEPA filters in your home or office, as well as certain plants that can clean pollutants from the air. Choose items that don’t contain plastics when you need to purchase replacement products.
IV drip bags and tubing. The very devices that are designed to help individuals improve their health also deliver toxic phthalates. In particular, DEHP is being transported into the blood vessels of hospitalized patients.
TIP: If you require an IV drip and are concerned about phthalate exposure, ask your healthcare provider whether you can get your necessary treatment in another way.
Mac and Cheese. Who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese? It’s one of the most popular comfort foods (with more than 2 million boxes sold daily in the U.S.), but you’re not likely to get much comfort from the high concentrations of phthalates found in the powdered cheese in these products. Results of a recent study of 30 cheese products found that “on average the phthalate levels in the 10 mac & cheese powders we tested were more than four times higher, on a fat basis, than in the 15 ‘natural’ cheese we tested (block cheese, string cheese, cottage cheese, and shredded cheese).” Nine of the 30 cheese products tested were made by Kraft.
It should be noted that phthalates are not added to these products; it makes its way into food during processing, which utilizes a variety of plastic components.
TIP: Avoid processed mac and cheese and make your own using organic cheese, which will still have a small amount of phthalates (unless you make your own cheese or purchase cheese from someone who doesn’t use any plastic items during the process). You also can sign a petition asking Kraft Foods to eliminate phthalates from their cheese products.
Medications. Both prescription and over-the-counter medications that are labeled “time release,” “film coated, “safety coated,” or “enteric coated” are actually covered with a plastic film that contains phthalates.
TIP: Speak to your doctor and ask if there is an alternative form of the drug that you can take, or ask your pharmacist for a phthalate-free version. Compounding pharmacies can make formulations without phthalates.
Plastic sex toys. We don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into your sexual escapades, but you may want to think twice before using plastic sex toys.
TIP: Choose sex toys made from other materials or check to ensure they are phthalate-free.
Processed and fast foods. Foods that make contact with a variety of plastic components such as conveyer belts, tubes, vats, and packaging are the most likely to be contaminated with or exposed to phthalates. A 2014 study appearing in Environmental Health reported that diets high in meats and dairy (think milk shakes, burgers, fried chicken, ice cream, pizza, and other favorite fatty foods) showed a twofold increased risk of exposure to these toxins.
TIP: Choose fresh, organic foods whenever possible and steer clear of processed, refined items and fast food. Also avoid foods that are packaged or stored in plastic containers.
Seafood. According to The Farm Project, people in Europe consumed about 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic in their seafood dinners last year. Some of that plastic is contaminated with phthalates. The presence of plastics in the oceans is a growing global problem, and it is predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in these waters than there are fish.
TIP: Help reduce the amount of plastics that end up in the oceans by refusing to use plastic water bottles (and using reusable stainless steel bottles instead), bringing cloth bags to the supermarket rather than use plastic bags, and recycling plastics properly.
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Coalition for Safer Food Processing & Packaging. About the “Final report: analysis of selected phthalates in food samples.”
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Serrano SE et al. Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data. Environmental Health 2014; 13:43