Should You Be Worried about Phthalates-the Chemical that is Everywhere?

Also known as the “everywhere” chemical because of their presence in commonly used plastic and cosmetic products, phthalates have recently received attention for their possible health risks. Here’s what you need to know about them.

By Shreya Maji
22 Oct 2021

Phthalates, one of the most commonly used chemicals in the whole world, are recently receiving attention because of a recent study carried out by NYU Grossman School of Medicine, which found that excessive exposure to it is linked to premature deaths of people between 55 and 64 years of age in the United States. We encounter phthalates every day. They are present in food and beverage containers, personal care products like shampoos, soaps, fragrances, hair sprays and laundry detergents, wall coverings, vinyl flooring, pharmaceuticals and even children’s toys.

Commonly used as “plasticisers”, these colourless and odorless liquids are needed to soften plastics and increase their durability and longevity. They are not chemically bound to the substances they are added to, and due to factors like heat, prolonged storage and production disturbances, they can be easily set off from the products, causing our bodies to absorb them through ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin, which can happen while using the product or after its disposal. Although phthalates are used and found in abundance, there have been some health risks connected to them.


Are Phthalates Harmful?
There is no single answer to this question, as phthalates are a wide group of chemical compounds. Some groups of phthalates, like DBP (Dibutyl phthalate), BBP (Benzyl butyl phthalate), and DEHP (di(2- ethylhexyl) phthalate) have been strictly banned from children’s toys because of their toxicity. Research is still ongoing about the different types of phthalates, but science has found that some phthalates are responsible for certain health concerns, with young and adolescent children and women found to be most at risk.

  • According to the Swedish National Testing and Research Institute, children’s exposure to phthalates can cause some negative developmental effects, such as allergies, asthmatic reactions and rhinitis. One type of phthalate used in plastic toys, called DiDP (Diisodecyl phthalate) can cause redness in your skin and eyes, and nausea and vomiting if ingested.
  • Phthalates pose a potential health risk to pregnant women as they can restrict foetal growth, which might lead to a low birth weight. A study published in Environment International in June 2021 suggests that phthalates could be responsible for a premature birth.
  • Some phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors, which means they can interrupt certain hormonal glands and functions in your body, causing endocrine, digestive and reproductive dysregulation. In a National Health Survey conducted by the United States in 2015, metabolites of a phthalate called di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP, were linked to a 24 to 34 percent drop in testosterone levels in adolescent boys, which could affect their bone health and sexual development through puberty.


How To Reduce Exposure to Phthalates


1. Avoid plastic food containers
One of the most common ways phthalates enter your body is through food contamination from plastic packaging. Foods high in fat, such as dairy, meats and cheese, are more susceptible to this. Opt for glass, ceramic and stainless steel food and storage containers, especially for reheating or microwaving your food. Reduce consumption of foods in take-away containers made of plastic.

2. Opt for home-cooked meals
The most extensive study conducted on phthalates was done by George Washington University, USA, from 2004 to 2015, which analysed data collected from 10,000 participants about where their food came from, and how it could be connected to an increased level of phthalates in their blood. Those that consumed food regularly from restaurants and fast food chains had a 35 percent higher level of the toxin in their urine samples than those who mostly ate food cooked at home. The study concluded that eating home cooked meals is preferable to avoid phthalates. Also reduce your consumption of packaged and pre-processed foods, which can contain phthalates from the production process.

3. Stay away from artificial fragrance
Phthalates are often hidden in cosmetic products under the label of “fragrance”, from where they can be absorbed by your skin. Try to avoid products that contain fragrance or “parfum” as a listed ingredient. Go for claims like “no synthetic fragrance”, “phthalate-free” or “scented with essential oils” in your cosmetics.


4. Invest in a good water filter
Studies suggest that drinking water can be contaminated due to the presence of DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), a type of phthalate, in water pipes. Water filters that make use of carbon filters or have a nano-filtration technology can remove these toxins.


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