Pollution in People Report - Chapter 1 - Phthalates, the Everywhere Chemical
From Toys to Body Lotion: Phthalates, the Everywhere Chemicals
Pam Tazioli is the consummate Washington woman. Raised in Seattle, she grew up swimming in Puget Sound, digging clams on Northwest beaches, and hiking in the Cascades. She went on to start two day care centers and help children with special needs. But Pam was forced to examine her life at age 47, when she was diagnosed with two forms of breast cancer that required extensive treatment. A double mastectomy and six rounds of chemotherapy later, Pam is now passionate about her health and diligent about getting the care she needs to keep the cancer from coming back. As the Washington State Coordinator for the Breast Cancer Fund, Pam also educates women about how to reduce breast cancer by addressing environmental causes like pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
Pam has particular concerns about a class of plasticizing chemicals known as phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), used widely in consumer products like cosmetics, vinyl flooring, and shower curtains. Phthalates are nearly ubiquitous in the medical devices Pam got to know intimately during her treatment. Her fears about the chemicals were realized when she received her Pollution in People study results: Pam had some of the highest levels of phthalates in the study, with a total of 467 ppb in her urine. Since phthalates don’t build up in the body, it’s unlikely that this was a remnant of her cancer treatment. Instead, her levels indicate Pam is encountering phthalates in her daily life: from the vinyl wallpaper in her apartment, the food she eats, her follow-up medical care, and the cosmetics and personal-care products she uses.
Our results show that Pam is not the only one unable to avoid phthalate exposure. We tested for seven forms of phthalates, which vary in their toxicity and use2. Most forms were found in all participants; five participants tested positive for all seven forms. Because the CDC tests for phthalates, we were able to compare the levels in our participants with levels found in a large number of people nationwide. For most of the forms, we found levels much higher than those in the population at large.
Figure 1 shows our participants’ exposures to the phthalate known as DEHP, which is widely used and, among phthalates, appears to be most toxic at low levels of exposure. Median levels among our participants for the three DEHP metabolites (MEHP, MEOHP, and MEHHP) were 7.7, 31.9, and 58.6 ppb; median levels in the CDC study were lower, at 4.1, 17.7, and 12.2 ppb (CDC 2005). We can’t be sure why the levels in our participants were higher, but there are two possibilities. Our samples were all taken at the first morning void, while the CDC took samples throughout the day, potentially creating a difference. Our participants or Washingtonians in general may, however, have greater exposures than others in the United States.
The Pollution in People participant at the top of the list for DEHP metabolites is an occupational and environmental nurse whose job takes her to foundries, shipyards, biotech companies, and a medical supplies warehouse. The chemicals she picks up at these workplaces include heavy metals, solvents—and apparently phthalates. Karen Bowman’s career in nursing spans more than two decades, and the tools of her trade make heavy use of phthalate-containing plastics. Medical devices made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), such as gloves, tubing, and intravenous bags, contain 20 to 40% DEHP. Karen’s overall DEHP metabolite levels (603 ppb) were more than twice those of any other participant.
Figure 1: Three breakdown products of the phthalate DEHP were measured in urine: MEHP, MEOHP, and MEHHP.
2 We tested for seven phthalate monoesters, which are breakdown products of five phthalate diesters used in products.