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What Are Phthalates and Do They Negatively Impact Your Health?

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Photo: Stocksy/ Juan Moyano
If you grew up with a worrywart parent like mine, you might have heard all about the dangers of heating plastic containers in the microwave. My family banned microwaving plastic in our house because of mysterious chemicals that could leak out of the plastic and into food. But those chemicals aren't so mysterious anymore: they're called phthalates, and while you may not need to ban plastics from your house, new research might have you wondering whether to be more cautious.

What are phthalates

Phthalates are a group of synthetic chemicals used in a wide variety of commercial products, most often plastics. Often, phthalates are responsible for making plastics more flexible and durable, giving them the name "plasticizers."

"Like many specialty chemicals, phthalates, and especially their metabolites, are endocrine mimics," says Glenn Morrison, PhD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina. That means that they look and act a lot like chemicals that occur naturally in our endocrine system, which tells messenger chemicals what to do and governs almost every biological process. "So they're often called endocrine disruptors, and they can stop something when it shouldn't stop, or start something when it shouldn't start," Dr. Morrison says. Often, the effect is quite weak, but there can be an effect.

You'll find phthalates all over the grocery store. They are in the plastic wrap that keeps meat fresh in the butcher's section and in bags that line trash cans or come inside a cereal box. But you'll also find phthalates in many other products, including makeup, vinyl flooring, garden hoses, medical equipment, and even soaps and shampoos. Phthalates are so ubiquitous that they're often called "the everywhere chemical."

What does existing research say about potential health risks

Over the last few decades, several scientific studies have found a correlation between phthalate exposure and health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and (in animal studies) premature puberty and lowered testosterone levels and sperm count. In 2008, the U.S. passed a law to ban three different phthalates from children's toys and childcare products like pacifiers and teething rings. The ban came after scientific research found that phthalate exposure put children's brain development at risk.

A 2021 study published in Environmental Pollution finds that among 5,303 study participants between the ages of 55 and 64, those with the highest concentrations of phthalates in their urine were more likely to die of heart disease and more likely to die of any cause than those with low exposure. Here's where things get tricky. Based on the findings of these studies, it seems phthalates are something to worry about. But the research doesn't definitively find that phthalates harm our health.

In fact, in response to the 2021 study, Susan Goldhaber, MPH, an environmental toxicologist, writes that the researchers reanalyzed data to exclude people who already had cardiovascular disease or cancer at the time of their study, and found no correlation between phthalates and cardiovascular death. This finding was included in a supplement to the study but not in the paper's discussion. Goldhaber argues that the paper overstates its results, leading to scary headlines that aren't entirely backed up by the science. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also says that human health effects from phthalate exposure are not clear.

The thing to understand is that almost all chemicals have a safe or virtually safe dose, says Michael Dourson, PhD, president of the non-profit Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment. He points out that one of the most toxic chemicals we know of, botulinum toxin, is used in Botox to get rid of people's wrinkles. "The botulinum toxin in [a contaminated] can of soup can probably kill everyone in your neighborhood," he says. "And yet, people shoot a very small dose of botulinum toxin into their skin."

His point is that all toxins, even the most toxic, are likely fine in small doses. As long as human phthalate exposure remains under the safe dose, there's no problem. According to the CDC, researchers found measurable levels of phthalates in the urine of 2,636 people aged 6 or older who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2004. The survey found that phthalate exposure is widespread in the U.S., that adult women have higher levels than men thanks to phthalates used in makeup, shampoo, soaps, and body washes, and that Black people also had higher levels of exposure compared to white people. However, the CDC reports that finding a measurable level of phthalates does not mean those levels cause harm. "I think most of these exposures we're talking about are very tiny," Dr. Dourson says. "You can measure them because we're really good with the chemistry, but as far as being above the safe dose, I don't think so." Still, knowing safe amounts can be challenging because there are many different chemicals that fall under the phthalate group.

How can we avoid phthalates

Avoiding phthalates is really, really difficult. They're known as "the everywhere chemical" because they are everywhere. If you buy any packaged food, you'll likely run into phthalates. If you use makeup, have vinyl flooring in your home, need a blood transfusion, or use a flexible plastic, you'll likely encounter phthalates. According to a 2017 report in America's Children and the Environment, more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced or imported to the U.S. every year.

So what does that mean for you right now? Well, if you're worried about phthalate exposure, you can buy products that promise to be phthalate-free. (For example, Target has a page for phthalate-free shampoo). Dr. Morrison posits that you can try your best to get your peanut butter and other condiments in glass jars instead, buy glass or ceramic Tupperware, get toothpaste tablets instead of tubes, and on and on. But again, that requires significant lifestyle changes, and you'll probably still encounter phthalates in things like flooring or even dust in your house.

However, the use of phthalates is dwindling. "Their use overall has gone down, even in places where they weren't banned, just because of economics," Dr. Morrison says. Because there is concern about phthalate's health risks, and more people are wary of products that have these chemicals, fewer companies are using them. Your buying power and your political voice are probably the best way to avoid phthalates in the future, Dr. Morrison says. "The way to do it is through bans on the substances at a higher level," he says.

In August, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced Senate Bill 2669, the Preventing Harmful 5 Exposure to Phthalates Act, which would ban phthalates from materials that touch our food and make sure that any substitute substances are safe. So If you're concerned about the health risks of phthalates, you can always contact elected officials and use your vote and your voice to make widespread change.

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