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What are Phthalates and How Can I Avoid Them?

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels 

Plastic has become that necessary evil in our lives - go anywhere in your home, and you’ll find several objects made of it. And you may have only considered the more obvious sources, like that plastic chair, phone, appliances, and so on. 

You may have missed the less obvious sources of plastic.

Cosmetics, personal care products like lotions, linings on soup cans, packaging, and even the microplastics in your tap water! How crazy is that?! 

Plastic, quite literally, is everywhere. And that means the chemicals that are released from them, too. Let's find out more about one class of chemicals that pose some worrying health risks. 

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates (pronounced “tha-leyts”) are a group of industrial chemicals. It’s a large class of chemicals pervading our indoor air and house dust.

Certain types of phthalates (e.g. MEHP and DEHP) are used as “plasticizers” or stuff that makes plastic as versatile as it is now. From vinyl flooring and wall covers to medical devices, lubricants, and personal care products - most plastics contain phthalates.

Phthalates that have lower molecular weight can also  be used in liquid products, like solvents, lacquers, lotions, and perfumes.

Why Should I Care About Phthalates?

It's no secret how plastics pollute our environment. But the harm doesn't stop there. Plastic chemicals like phthalates have been linked to serious health conditions and disorders

Phthalates Affect the Reproductive System

One of the most worrying impacts of phthalates is on the reproductive system, especially in males. Researchers have looked into what they call the androgenetic distance.  

Androgenetic distance, or AGD, is the distance between the anus and the genitals. 

In humans, this distance is about 50 to 100% longer in males than females. This is a notable difference in physical makeup between the sexes. That’s because the AGD is connected to the reproductive capacity of males. In fact, it is a significant marker of genital tract development. The shorter the AGD in males, the less testosterone produced by the body. 

AGD, along with testicular descent, and the weight of the genitalia itself, are carefully examined when evaluating any risk of reproductive toxicity.

So, what do phthalates have to do with AGD? 

Studies have shown that increased exposure to phthalates causes a decrease in the AGD of male newborns. Phthalates are water-soluble, so they are present in urine samples. When expectant mothers’ samples have been tested, results suggest that phthalates significantly affect the AGD of male infants.

Other findings also suggest that phthalates can cause low sperm concentration, decreased sperm mobility, and impaired sperm growth in males.

Phthalates Linked to Heart Disruptions

Phthalates don't just affect the reproductive hormones - they may also be linked to heart conditions.

In a 2019 preclinical study by researchers at Children’s National Health Center, the team investigated how phthalates found in medical products can contribute to heart disruptions. 

The team studied in vitro heart models, not actual live patients. In their study, they found that even just 30 minutes of exposure to phthalates MEHP and DEHP can result in the slower pumping action of the atrioventricular node. They also observed slower epicardial conduction velocity. The specialists note that as phthalates resemble hormones, they could inhibit the sodium current in the heart.

While the team admits that further, more long-term studies should pursue more answers, it's worth noting that phthalates are already banned in children's toys and products - because of the health risks.

Medical-grade products are readily administered to patients. These IV fluid tubes, feeding tubes, catheters, and blood storage bags all have phthalates. If it's risky for children, imagine being exposed up to 25 times higher in a healthcare setting!

In critical patients especially, with blood transfusion, oxygenation, IV fluid administration - these can release phthalates directly into the bloodstream.

Phthalates and Obesity

Several studies have also linked phthalates with body weight increase and obesity risk. And this could happen in utero, and when young children are exposed to these chemicals.

In research in South Korea, 128 expectant women were examined. Through urine samples that measured phthalate metabolites, it was found that the chemicals linked to a faster BMI increase for their 3-month-old newborns.

These results are consistent with another study in China. The researchers looked into the weight and waist-to-height ratio among school-age children. When urinary phthalate levels were checked, they found that the phthalate levels were higher in puberty. Also, there was a body distribution difference. Phthalate metabolites were more prominent in the abdominal tissues in boys. Girls had the phthalate metabolites distributed in the entire body.  

Differences notwithstanding, more studies are now linking phthalates and weight gain. These chemicals can disrupt the endocrine gland across ages. And with obesity-related health concerns rising, it's crucial to know how plastics play a role in our health outcomes.

How Can I Avoid Phthalates?

Unfortunately, we can't completely be rid of phthalates. They're so insidious they're even in the dust! It can be overwhelming to try it in our lifestyle that's surrounded by plastics.

But there are steps to limit our exposure to phthalates. These include:

Try to avoid plastic in the kitchen

Plastic items that come into contact with our food can easily leach phthalates into the food. Even more so if there’s heat involved - which is pretty hard to avoid when cooking. The best way to reduce phthalate exposure is to use other materials like glass, ceramic (lead-free) and stainless-steel kitchen products.

Wrap foods in wax paper or cloth; use glass to microwave food and beverages; use steel or wooden utensils when cooking; store foods in glass or steel containers. 

Store foods in a different container

According to a food and agriculture specialist, you can actually reduce exposure by changing the storage container of recently bought products. As phthalates release onto the environment over time, all the chemicals may not have leeched out yet. Changing the food container into a phthalate-free option can at least reduce the exposure.

Opt for fresh, whole foods as much as possible

While it wouldn’t be practical to return to foraging food literally, it’s a fact that the more steps included in the processing of food, the more chances for chemicals to be absorbed in it. Phthalates are in the linings of cans, which means all canned food, soups, and sauces will contain them. 

When you can, go for whole foods - stock up on unprocessed ingredients that you can purchase and store in phthalate-free containers.

There’s also less likely phthalate leaching in frozen fruits and vegetables. The cold temperatures inhibit the chemical absorption in the food. 

Of course, products like milk, yogurt, and dairy are processed in tubing that will likely have phthalates in them, so there’s little that we can do about these products apart from not consuming them.

Read the labels

Given that phthalates are in food packaging, household items, and even personal care products, it will do a lot if you can check the labels of these items you readily use. 

For example, pick products that explicitly state “no phthalates” on the packaging. If you’re an expectant mother or now caring for an infant, use soaps, shampoos, powders and lotions that have been tested and proven to be free of these chemicals.

Phthalates are prevalent in personal care products - even those formulated for babies! Aside from scrutinizing the label, you can also pick items that are fragrance-free. While this is not an automatic guarantee that it’s phthalate-free, most scented products will contain the chemicals.

Avoid squeezable items and plastic linings

Phthalates are used in most plastic products to make them pliant. So watch out for any squeezable toys, containers, bottles, and other items. 

And again, plastic linings release the chemicals. So instead of using paper cups for takeaway coffee or tea, always keep a reusable tumbler handy.

How to Minimize Phthalates 

Phthalates are as difficult to spell as they are to dispel. 

Because it’s everywhere in our homes, it can be discouraging to even attempt to stay phthalate-free. But these simple techniques we’ve shared can help you ease into a less exposed environment. While you cannot control these chemicals from being in the air and dust all around, you can choose what cosmetic products to use, or where to store your food. 

What else do you want to know about phthalates? And which of these suggestions are you going to try?

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