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Information on phthalates - Pollution in People study

From Toys to Body Lotion: the Everywhere Chemical

Found in urine samples from 10 of 10 Washingtonians in the Pollution in People study

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are plasticizing and softening chemicals used in a wide array of consumer products, especially those containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

How am I exposed?

Phthalates are found in:

  • PVC products such as vinyl flooring, vinyl shower curtains, and children’s toys
  • many personal care products, such as perfumes, nail polish, and lotions
  • medical devices, such as IV bags and tubing that are made with PVC
  • automobile interiors
  • our air, water, and soil due to industrial pollution and leaching from consumer products

vinyl shower curtain

IV bag

nail polish

Why Should I Be Concerned?

We are exposed to phthalates every day from a wide range of sources.  Studies in animals and people have linked phthalates to serious health problems.

  • In animal studies, phthalates cause an array of reproductive problems in male offspring, including small or otherwise abnormal testes, hypospadias (abnormal urinary openings), and undescended testes. In studies on people, boys born to mothers with greater exposure had altered genital development.
  •  Phthalates may also cause asthma as well as liver and kidney damage.

Phthalates do not build up in our bodies.  But because we are constantly re-exposed to sources of phthalates, levels in our bodies may remain fairly constant.

What can Government and Industry do?

The reality of the reproductive effects caused by phthalates at today’s exposure levels highlights the urgent need to eliminate the plasticizers from products. Addressing two types of products containing phthalates—PVC and cosmetics—would have a major impact in reducing exposure.

 A number of companies, hospitals, and government agencies have taken steps to switch to alternative materials and phase out PVC use.

  • Microsoft has now completely ended the use of PVC in its packaging material.

  • Kaiser Permanente has pledged to reduce PVC wherever possible in new construction.

  • Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland has eliminated most PVC products from its neonatal intensive care unit, as has the Special Care Nursery at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle.

  • Seattle and Olympia have both passed resolutions committing them to seeking alternatives to PVC for city operations.

Based on existing evidence, the European Union passed legislation banning some phthalates in cosmetics in 2003, and has kept three phthalates out of toys since 1999.

Although many uses of phthalates are essentially ungoverned in the United States, cosmetic and medical uses are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has not taken steps to ban phthalates.

  • Cosmetics companies should sign the Safe Cosmetics Compact and phase out phthalates and other potentially harmful toxic chemicals.
  • Hospitals should phase out PVC medical devices. Healthcare Without Harm has worked with Kaiser and other healthcare institutions to identify safer alternatives.
  • State and federal governments should phase out phthalates—and other toxic chemicals that can result in reproductive harm—in consumer products such as toys, cosmetics and medical devices.

How can I reduce my exposure?

You can reduce your own and your family’s exposure to phthalates by avoiding PVC and purchasing products from companies that have eliminated phthalates.

Some of the products that should be avoided include:

  • Vinyl windows and doors. Opt for wood instead.
  • PVC Packaging. Product packages marked with the #3 recycling symbol contain PVC.
  • Vinyl shower curtains. Choose cotton shower curtains with polyester or nylon liners.
  • PVC Toys.  Toymakers that have pledged to stop using PVC include: Early Start, Little Tikes, Lego, Prime Time Playthings, Sassy, and Tiny Love.
  • Vinyl plastic wrap and other food storage. Buy plastic wrap and bags made from polyethylene. For food storage, use glass containers or plastic containers marked with recycling symbols other than 3.

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