Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to soften plastics in many consumer products, including children’s toys and plastic containers. Some phthalates are found as contaminants in our food and others enter the home as part of plastic consumer and household products, including children’s toys and vinyl flooring tiles. They can also be found in scented products like perfumes and air fresheners. Phthalates can seep out of these products and get into our bodies through ingestion, inhalation, or through the skin and once inside they also cross the placenta. Studies have shown that phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system, which is the body’s system of regulating hormones.
What We Know About Phthalates
The Center has been assessing the relationship between phthalate exposure during pregnancy and gestational age at delivery among its cohort of women and children living in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx. To date, investigators have found considerable phthalate exposure during pregnancy: They detected phthalates in 99 to 100 percent of maternal personal air samples, taken through a backpack air monitor worn by our study participant mothers. In addition, two or more of the phthalate metabolites under investigation were detected in 100 percent of urine samples. Metabolites levels were generally higher among the Center cohort women than among a nationally representative sample of women of reproductive age (18-40 years) measured as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Investigators have found that prenatal exposure to the phthalate DEHP was associated with shorter gestation. Given inconsistencies with prior findings in other study populations, however, these results should be interpreted with caution and additional research is warranted.
What You Can Do
Eat Fresh When Possible
- A small recent study found that when families substituted fresh foods minimizing their intake of processed and packaged ingredients they had lower exposure to the phthalate DEHP.
Avoid #3 Plastics
- Look for #2, 4, and 5 plastics which are less likely to contain phthalates.
- Visit Healthy Child Healthy World for a more complete guide to plastic coding.
- Plastics labeled with a recycling #3 are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is often softened with phthalates and should be avoided.
Use PVC-Free Food Storage Containers
- Use stainless steel, glass, and ceramic food containers as an alternative to plastic ones.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one type of plastic treated with phthalates to make it softer and more flexible. PVC and phthalates can leach into the food we consume and should generally be avoided.
Do Not Microwave Plastics
- If you use plastic vessels to store food, do not microwave them. Heating containers with phthalates speeds up the migration from the container to the food, leading to exposure.
Avoid Phthalates in Toys
- When possible, avoid plastic toys altogether.
- Look for toys made from polypropylene or polyethylene, as opposed to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is often made with phthalates.
- Purchase toys from manufacturers such as Early Start, Brio, Chicco, Evenflo, Gerber, Lego, Sassy, which have pledged to eliminate phthalates from their products.
- Databases of phthalate-free cosmetics can be found here: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
- Check labels and avoid nail polishes that list phthalates as an ingredient.
Ventilate Your Home and Avoid Scented Air Fresheners
- If you do use air fresheners, opt for phthalate free products such as Febreze Air Effects Air Refresher or Renuzit Subtle Effects, which contained no phthalates when tested by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
- Rather than using air fresheners and to reduce dust and increase ventilation, increase air circulation by opening windows and using fans.
- Phthalates can also attach to dust particles and be inhaled from the air.
- Phthalates are also often used as solvents in perfumes and air-fresheners and can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin when sprayed in the air.