Phthalates, called "plasticizers," are chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic soft, pliable and, in the case of water bottles, clear. This chemical is as American as apple pie -- and in all of our households through things like toys, food packaging, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, lubricants, adhesives, detergents and most cosmetics. Phthalates make baby's teething rings soft, give your car that new car smell (by off-gassing), are in almost all perfumes and nail polish, and make medical tubing and IV bags flexible.
Phthalates are also endocrine disruptors, which mean they interfere with normal brain development. Children's brains are always developing, which makes them particularly susceptible to damage from phthalates. Our children are also most likely to come into contact with them because plastics are widely used in children's toys and foods, and in most things they come into contact with.
Researchers have found that children suffer permanent damage from phthalates because their cells depend upon hormones to determine how they should develop. Phthalates resemble estrogen in the body and send signals to cells that may result in autism, breast and other reproductive system cancers like testicular cancer, and reduced sperm counts. Adult exposure to endocrine disruptors is not as harmful because its effects are temporary, similar to taking a birth control pill.
Recently, phthalates have been linked to autism in a study by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He found that autism and other ailments "are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed." In another study, researchers measured phthalate levels in the urine of pregnant women and found those with higher levels had children more likely to display disruptive behavior.
Phthalates are highly profitable, bringing chemical companies over $1.4 billion a year. ExxonMobil is a major manufacturer of phthalates. Many countries have banned phthalates, like the European Union nations, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and even China. The United States demands a level of proof that many scientists consider impossible and hasn't acted to protect the American people from harmful toxins. The Environmental Protection Agency is slow to react and has only banned a handful of chemicals in its history, while allowing millions more to be used without any safety testing at all.
Many savvy mothers are already protesting phthalates -- and urging others to boycott manufacturers. Because of lax regulation, phthalates aren't listed on product labels and are so widely used its difficult to avoid them. The best way to protect your family is to look at the number in the recycling triangle located on the bottom of the container.
-- Don't buy or use and plastics with the Nos. 1, 3 or 7 because they contain endocrine disruptors. Safer choices are Nos. 2,4 or 5.
-- Don't buy any product that contains n-butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP) or di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), or any other ingredient that starts with "phth," which is a dead giveaway for phthalates.
-- Avoid any soft, flexible or pliable plastic, especially for use around children. Polymer clays contain up to 14 percent phthalates by weight. These phthalates enter children's bodies through hands and breathing fumes produced when the clays are baked. A child playing for five minutes with small amounts of the tested clays would be exposed to levels of phthalates that exceed the maximum daily exposure standards set in Florida and Minnesota.
-- Use all-natural cosmetics, personal care products, home cleaners and adhesives. Synthetic fragrances in hair sprays, antiperspirants and deodorants, adhesives in nail polishes, and fume-bearing chemicals expose children to airborne phthalates.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y.