Phthalates are a group of chemicals used primarily to make plastics more flexible and resistant to breakage. They are used in millions of consumer products including toys, food storage containers, plastic bottles, plastic bags, shower curtains, automotive interiors and medical equipment. Phthalates are also commonly used in fragrances and personal care products such as nail polish.

Phthalates are toxic to humans. They disrupt the human endocrine system and may lead to the early onset of puberty in girls, which carries an increased risk for breast cancer. Studies have also shown that phthalates negatively affect the development of male reproductive systems, including structural abnormalities of the organs and reduced sperm counts. In 2005, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reported a link between phthalates and liver cancer.

The primary route of exposure to phthalates is through eating food and drinking beverages stored in packaging that contains phthalates, such as bottled water. Children and infants are exposed at higher rates than adults, due to the fact that phthalates are common in toys and other baby items.

Medical devices, I.V. bags, tubing and other products often contain high levels of phthalates, exposing vulnerable patients, such as premature babies and pregnant women, to a higher level of exposure. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends the use of phthalate-free alternatives for these and other at-risk populations.

Phthalates are added to many personal care products including deodorant, hair products, makeup and nail polishes. While some companies have moved away from the use of phthalates, many have not. Federal law does not require manufacturers to label phthalates as ingredients in most of these products, so consumers must research the brands they purchase.

Several states have already acted to regulate phthalates, and several major retailers have committed to phasing out toys containing phthalates.

Resources

Phthalates Fact Sheet – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Phthalates Action Plan Summary – Environmental Protection Agency