Phthalates are a group of harmful chemicals that are primarily used to soften plastics and vinyls in many consumer and industrial products. Around 90% of phthalates are used as plasticizers to improve the flexibility and durability of plastics and products made of polyvinylchloride (PVC).1 Others are used as solvents and stabilizers in cosmetics and consumer products.2 They can be found in a wide range of industrial products, from plastics, glues, caulks, paints, building materials, and vinyl floors, as well as in medical equipment such as intravenous (IV) bags and tubing. They are also found in many consumer products such as shower curtains, cleaning products, food packaging, children’s toys, and personal care products, like soap, shampoo, hairspray, and nail polish.3 Because phthalates are semi-volatile, they can seep out of these products and into the air, where they can be inhaled. They can also be ingested or absorbed by skin contact, particularly in cases of food or water packaged in plastic, or even intravenously in the case of medical procedures.4 Phthalates are major indoor pollutants, found in indoor air and dust, but they are also found in outdoor air, released from sources such as the disposal of industrial waste, municipal solid waste, land application of sewage sludge, and products that contain phthalates.5

Even at very low levels, phthalates can be harmful to human health.6 They are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT), and can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system.7 Phthalates present in vinyl flooring like Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) also disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates the body’s hormones. This can cause cancer and have implications for childhood cognitive and reproductive development, including reduced fertility in both men and women.8 Fetuses or infants exposed to phthalates have a higher rate of asthma, allergies, and cognitive and behavioural problems.9

Phthalates are particularly problematic because they are used so widely that exposure is daily and ubiquitous for both adults and children, with the highest phthalate concentrations found in adult women and children from ages 6-11.10 Children in this age group are the subgroup most likely to be exposed to many phthalates such as BBP, DPB, DEHP, and DMP, in part because of their hand-to-mouth behaviors.11 Because phthalates can cross the placenta and be transmitted through breast milk, pregnant women and mothers should be particularly careful to avoid exposure. Studies have also shown that black people have higher concentrations of phthalates than non-blacks.12 High levels of phthalates can be found in marine and freshwater ecosystems, as well as in aquatic wildlife like fish, and terrestrial animals. Phthalates filter into the environment from products such as plastic debris, manufacturing processes, and recycling. Animals suffer hormone disruptions similar to those observed in humans, even with very low exposure.13

Despite these health and environmental risks, there is little phthalate regulation. Existing regulations are mostly geared towards protecting children. They are banned from use in children’s products in over a dozen countries, the European Union, and the State of California.14 In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 established a federal ban on phthalate use in toys and children’s products.15 Banned phthalates are often replaced with other phthalates that have similar health effects.

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information
  2. Healthcare Without Harm
  3. The Center for Disease Control: Phthalates Fact Sheet
  4. Breast Cancer Prevention Partners: Phthalates
  5. Environmental Protection Agency Phthalates Action Plan
  6. Six Classes: Bisphenols + Phthalates
  7. Parsons School of Design’s Healthier Materials & Sustainable Building Certificate Program
  8. US National Library of Medicine
  9. Six Classes: Bisphenols + Phthalates
  10. International Living Future Institute
  11. EPA Assessing and Managing Chemicals under TSCA: Phthalates
  12. Breast Cancer Prevention Partners: Phthalates
  13. Six Classes: Bisphenols + Phthalates
  14. International Living Future Institute
  15. Healthcare Without Harm

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