Phthalates are a class of chemicals added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. About a billion pounds per year are produced worldwide. They are found in the enteric coating of pills and supplements, in adhesives and glues, personal care products, medical devices, detergents, paints, printing inks, shower curtains, vinyl upholstery, car interiors and many other plastic products. They easily diffuse into the environment as plastics age. We all have phthalates in our bodies – from our diet, skin exposure (from personal care products) general environmental contamination and inhalation. Cheese, butter and meats are a source of phthalates in food, in part from plastic packaging.
Shana Swan at the University of Rochester School of Medicine has studied the exposure of pregnant women to phthalates. She has written that most findings concern male children, where she found a correlation between a shortened distance between the anus and penis, and a smaller penis size with higher concentration of phthalates in the mother’s urine during pregnancy. These measurements may indicate an anti-androgen effect of phthalates, which was also found in some experimental animals. Swan writes that sensitive biomarkers to assay human phthalate exposure have been available for a short time (10-11years), so that the long term effects may not yet be known. The necessary epidemiological studies are expensive and slow, so that animal studies and small human studies will be necessary. Results from these are controversial. Some recent studies have found correlations between low sperm counts and phthalate levels in men. . Studies on early puberty in girls have not reliably shown a correlation with phthalates at this point.
Studies on phthalate levels in pregnant women and their babies/children have been done in several universities. Women exposed to phthalates and pesticides in the workplace are more likely to take six or more months to conceive and to have lower birth-weight babies, according to a recent study at Erasmus Medical College in Rotterdam. Researchers at Mt Sinai (NYC), Cornell and the US Centers for Disease Control found that higher prenatal exposure to phthalates was connected to disruptive and problem behaviors in children ages 4-9. Behaviors included aggressiveness, and ADHD.
What you can do
Lowering exposure to phthalates is prudent, and especially important if you are pregnant or care for children. Body-care products containing phthalates are a source of exposure for infants. Read the ingredients whenever you buy a product: avoid personal care products (hair products, nail polish, deodorants, perfumes, lotions, etc) with DBP, DEP, BzBP. Be aware that the term ‘fragrance’ can mean that phthalates are present. This may mean a serious change in your use of body-care products and cosmetics. You can find safer cosmetics of all kinds at the website of the Environmental Working Group: www.ewg.org/skindeep/.
DEHP is used in PVC plastics. DMP is in insect repellents. Choose plastics with the recycling code 1,2 or 5. Codes 3, 6 and 7 may contain bisphenol A or phthalates. Parents should not buy soft plastic PVC toys for children. California has a law – signed by Governor Schwarzenegger – that bans products containing more than 0.1% phthalates from toys as well as baby bottles and other items that children can put in their mouths.
After reading about the widespread nature of phthalates in our environment, as well as bisphenol A, you are probably ready for some better news. Dr. B.B. Aggarwal, a cancer researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, has written a new book called Healing Spices in which he brings together ancient traditional medicine and modern medical research to show how herbs and spices can promote healing and health. I will report on his findings in subsequent columns. In the meantime, know that he has a chapter on cocoa and chocolate, and is also a strong proponent of turmeric. See his website – Curcumin – The Indian Solid Gold, and prepare to be surprised at the science on the actions of curcumin against cancer and other diseases. Curcumin is the active agent in turmeric. Make some curry for dinner!
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH – back issues on this blog