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Phthalates: Research finds more worrying links with human health problems

Phthalates can make up to 50% of the composition of a PVC plastic toy, like this football.

Phthalates are a well-known problematic group of chemicals for human health, which is why some of the uses of certain phthalates in toys and other children’s products are partly restricted in the EU. However, this does not mean that adults and children are not exposed to them from other sources. They have a wide variety of uses and are found in everyday consumer products such as plastic packaging, carpets and still even in toys.

In fact just this week it has been reported that a joint customs and market surveillance operation by four EU countries has found that of 104 samples of toys it checked, more than a third contained illegal levels of phthalates.

Certain phthalates have already been found to be associated with the disruption of  reproductive organ development in boys. However, two recent studies have found that exposure to these chemicals in the womb can have an impact on the language development of children and the early onset of female puberty.

Language delay

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked at the levels of phthalates in pregnant women in relation to language development in their children.The study included 963 children and mothers from Sweden, and 370 mothers and children from the United States.

The researchers took urine samples from the mothers early on in their pregnancies, which were measured for the presence of phthalates. A questionnaire was filled out by parents about their child’s language development at 30 months old in Sweden and when they were at least two years old in the US.

Two particular phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP) — both classified in the EU as being reprotoxic and as endocrine disrupters – were statistically significantly associated with language delay in both the Swedish and US cohorts.

When you compare the risk of language delay in mothers with high exposure versus low exposure, it was double the risk. They were twice as likely to have language delay” said Shanna Sawn, Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine and co-author of the study.

Early onset puberty

Another recent study in Human Reproduction  found that mothers who had higher levels of certain chemicals in their bodies during pregnancy had daughters who entered puberty earlier. The link was found with a breakdown product of diethyl phthalate, which is used as a component of fragrances, and triclosan, which is an antibacterial agent in certain soaps and toothpaste.

Dr Kim Harley, Associate Professor in Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, who led the study, said:

“This is important because we know that the age at which puberty starts in girls has been getting earlier in the last few decades; one hypothesis is that chemicals in the environment might be playing a role and our findings support this idea.

Earlier puberty in girls increases their risk of mental health problems and risk-taking behaviours as teenagers and increases their risk of breast and ovarian cancer over the long-term, so this is an important issue to address.”

Chemical restrictions and the need to close gaps

The EU has decided to restrict the use of four phthalates DEHP, DBP, BBP and DIBP in many consumer products, due to their toxic effect on reproductive health and the endocrine system. This partial ban takes into account the cumulative effects and combined exposure to the 4 phthalates. CHEM Trust views this as a welcome and long overdue measure.

However, the restriction does not prevent these chemicals being used in food contact materials ie. conveyor belts and pipes used during food production, plastic gloves worn to handle food, and containers and wrappings used for food packaging.

CHEM Trust has been highlighting the lack of EU action on phthalates in food contact materials. In July this year we sent a letter to key EU Commissioners and co-signed (with European Environment Bureau), a second letter to Member State experts on the REACH committee, both calling for the proposed restriction on four phthalates to be extended to cover the use of these phthalates in food contact materials. Unfortunately, the food contact uses were not added to the restriction. CHEM Trust continues to push for this as part of our work to improve the EU’s regulation of chemicals in food contact materials.

In the case of diethyl phthalate no hazards have been formally identified in the EU, however it is listed on the environmental NGO, ChemSec’s, SIN List. The SIN List consists of chemicals that have been identified by ChemSec as meeting the criteria for substances of very high concern under REACH and thus should be prioritised for substitution.

Dr Michael Warhurst, CHEM Trust Executive Director said:

“Research is demonstrating yet again how we need stronger, faster and more comprehensive regulation of problematic groups of chemicals such as phthalates. We have known about the health impacts of phthalates for a very long time, which is why their use is restricted in some products such as toys.

Although it is welcome that the EU has recently restricted the use of four phthalates in certain products, they can still be used in food contact materials. This is in spite of the fact that the EU assessment concluded that the majority of exposure to DEHP comes via food, and that a significant portion of the exposure to the other phthalates is via food.

The EU must close this loophole where phthalates, which have been identified as hazardous to human health, can continue to be used in food contact materials.”

  • CHEM Trust is also working on a project  with the Food Packaging Forum, ChemSec and academic scientists to identify which chemicals in plastic packaging should be a priority for the industry to find alternatives to. This project has identified 5 phthalates (DEHP, DBP, BBP, DIBP and DHP) as priorities to remove from plastic packaging based on hazard data.

What can you do to reduce your risk?

We can all reduce our exposure to phthalates by using fewer cosmetics and toiletries, avoiding overly processed and packaged food and dusting at home – as phthalates present in household products can end up in household dust.