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Phthalates – they’re all around us and could be having some strange effects…

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in a wide range of products – this introduction from a 2013 scientific paper is a good summary:

“Phthalates are a group of ubiquitous chemicals present in many consumer products, including building materials, furnishings, clothing, paints, food packaging, toys, personal care products and pharmaceuticals. Many of them are or have been produced in very large quantities. Phthalates can be released into the environment by leaching, evaporation, migration, abrasion or application of phthalate-containing personal care products. Due to their widespread use, the general population is continuously exposed to phthalates.”

The research paper that is the source of this quote is looking at children’s exposure to phthalates,  by measuring breakdown products in their urine. It also looks at how the phthalates are getting into the children, and concludes that for some of the phthalates much of it is coming from dust and indoor air, whereas for others they are coming from other sources. This study also finds that many of the children in the study are being exposed to above the safety level of some of the phthalates.

It’s worth noting that the use of some – but not all – phthalates is controlled in the EU – but these controls are not always obeyed, as in the case of the Loom Band Charms.

Phthalates are associated with a whole range of toxic affects, including hormone disruption, as summarised in the paper:

“phthalates are known to be developmental and reproductive toxicants. Indications exist that they may impact genital development, semen quality, children’s neurodevelopment, thyroid function, onset of puberty in females and that they may possibly cause respiratory problems”

There’s new research coming out about the potential impacts of phthalates all the time – here are two recent examples:

Impact on baby boys

Exposure to the phthalate DEHP is known to lead to a reduction in the distance between the anus and genitals in baby boys; new research has found another phthalate, DINP, seems to have the same effect in Swedish boys. DINP is increasingly being used in soft PVC flooring materials for example, replacing DEHP. The authors query this:

“These findings call into question the safety of substituting DiNP for DEHP in soft PVC, particularly since a shorter male AGD has been shown to relate to male genital birth defects in children and impaired reproductive function in adult males and the fact that human levels of DiNP are increasing globally”

Impact on Libido?

The latest research that caught the attention of the UK media was on phthalates & libido:

Extract from Daily Mail coverage:

Chemicals in plastic ‘are making women less interested in sex’: Low libido linked to additives used to soften materials found in every home

“In the first study of its kind, Dr Emily Barrett, of the University of Rochester School of Medicine in the US, measured levels of phthalates in the urine of 360 pregnant women in their 20s and 30s.

She also asked them how often they lost interest in sex in the months leading up to their pregnancy.

Those with the most phthalates in their bodies were two and a half times as likely to say they had frequently lacked interest in sex as those with the least.

She said: ‘It is interesting because these are chemicals that we are all exposed to every day. They are throughout our environment and every person studied showed measurable levels.’…

Elizabeth Salter Green, director of campaign group CHEM Trust, said it is ‘highly likely’ that phthalates are also found in British food.

She said our exposure to them is ‘constant’ because they are used in so many products.”

Extract from coverage in The Times:

Plastic found in cleaning products could be destroying your sex life

Elizabeth Salter Green, director of the campaign group CHEM Trust, said: “Male and female sexual health is exquisitely sensitive to sex hormones and DEHP is a major hormone disruptor and feminises the male. 

“Our exposure to DEHP is constant as it is used in so many consumer products made of soft plastic like PVC flooring and shower curtains. However, the phthalate leaches out of the product and we become exposed. It is time for industry and regulators to move away from major gender benders such as DEHP and replace hormone disruptors with safer alternatives.”

Rebecca Sokol, the ASRM [American Society for Reproductive Medicine] president, said: “Exposure to endocrine- disrupting chemicals is difficult to avoid in our society. As we learn more about the effects they have on human health and reproduction, we are realising that we need to find ways to protect ourselves from them and find alternatives to their use.”

A Chemical Industries Association spokesman said: “We are not aware of any globally accepted tests which can yet measure the effect chemical exposure may have on libido, but this is an interesting field of work.”