Phthalates are a large group of chemicals commonly added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. They also are often used to carry fragrances, such as those added to cosmetics and other toiletries. Many of those phthalates studied have been found to be harmful for human health. Several phthalates are well known to be endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
How are we exposed to phthalates?
Phthalates are used in a range of consumer products, such as furnishings, flooring, clothing, paints, toiletries, and some toys. They are also widely used as plasticisers in plastic packaging. In Western Europe about one million tonnes of phthalates are produced each year, of which approximately 900,000 tonnes are used to plasticise PVC.
Phthalates may also come into contact with our food and drinks, which are regularly packaged in plastics. The Hazardous Chemicals in Plastic Packaging (HCPP) project, delivered by CHEM Trust and a groups of NGOs and academic scientists, identified 14 different hazardous phthalates in plastic packaging.
We can be exposed to phthalates via several routes:
- We can ingest them when we consume food and drinks that have been packaged in plastic or stored in plastic containers that contain phthalates
- Children can be exposed to phthalates by sucking on plastic toys or products that contain phthalates
- We can breathe them in when they wear off plastic products and mix with dust indoors. Children are more likely to be exposed to phthalates through this route as they put their hands in their mouth more and crawl on floors and carpets
What do phthalates do to our bodies?
Some phthalates have been linked to harmful impacts on human health. Certain phthalates are classified as toxic for reproduction or as endocrine disruptors, which means they can interfere with the body’s sensitive hormone messaging system. Pregnant women and children are more vulnerable to negative health impacts linked to exposure to phthalates.
Certain phthalates have been found to be associated with the disruption of reproductive organ development in boys. These links have been known for a number of years. A study of 753 baby boys published in 2015 showed that male children of mothers who were exposed to the phthalate DEHP during the first trimester of pregnancy had disrupted reproductive development. Researchers involved in the study warned that “even at low levels, environmental exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals can adversely affect male genital development, which in turn may impact male reproductive health later in life.”
Studies have linked exposure to phthalates in the womb to the early onset of female puberty and delaying the language development of children. Read more about these links in our blog post ‘Phthalates: Research finds more worrying links with human health problems’.
There is growing evidence that phthalates can impair children’s brain development. A recent publication from the TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks) project reports on the link between prenatal exposure to phthalates and neurodevelopmental effects in children. Effects reported have included altered behaviour, and symptoms of, or clinical diagnosis of developmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. For one specific phthalate, reduction of child IQ was reported.
Read more about the link between prenatal exposure to phthalates and neurodevelopmental effects in our blog post ‘Hormone disrupting chemicals may also harm children’s brains – scientists call for action’.
EU restrictions on phthalates
Certain phthalates are restricted in certain uses in the EU. For example, in the EU any phthalate that has been classified as toxic for reproduction cannot be used in cosmetics and certain phthalates are restricted in some toys and other children’s products.
A number of phthalates are on the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) candidate list. The candidate list includes substances of very high concern (SVHC) such as endocrine disrupters and indicates to industry that it is unwanted in products and should be phased out. The public also has the right to know if a product contains a chemical that has been identified as a SVHC in a concentration of more than 0.1% of the product’s weight. All of the phthalates currently on the list are included for being toxic for reproduction, and several are also listed as having endocrine disrupting properties that impact human health and/or the environment.
Phthalate group restriction
In the EU, eight phthalates are subject to authorisation under REACH. In July 2020 four phthalates (DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP) were restricted as a group in the EU in many consumer products due to their toxic effect on reproductive health and the endocrine system, particularly their impact on male fertility. However, the restriction does not prevent these chemicals from being used in food contact materials, such as conveyor belts and pipes used during food production, plastic gloves worn to handle food, and containers and wrapping used for food packaging.
How can you avoid phthalates?
There are some steps that you can take to avoid phthalates in certain products:
- Reduce your overall use of cosmetics and toiletries – this will limit the range of harmful chemicals you could be exposed to.
- Cut down on takeaways – fast food has been found to contain high levels of harmful chemicals such as phthalates, and the packaging can be a source of exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Dust and vacuum regularly – phthalates can build up in household dust, so keeping your home as dust-free as possible should reduce your risk of exposure.
What has CHEM Trust been doing on phthalates?
CHEM Trust has been working on issues around phthalates for a number of years, in particular using them as an example of the need to consider mixture effects of chemicals and highlighting the importance of using REACH (the EU’s main chemicals law) as a tool to protect consumers.
In 2009 we advocated for the EU to consider the cumulative effects of phthalates under REACH, following the landmark report by the US National Academies ‘Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment’ in 2008. In 2018, the EU decided to restrict 4 phthalates as a group (DBP, DEHP, DIBP and BBP) in many consumer products, this restriction came into force in July 2020.
CHEM Trust worked with a collaboration of NGOs and academic scientists to produce a database of Chemicals associated with Plastic Packaging (CPPdb). The project identified which chemicals should be a priority for industry to find alternatives to, based on their potential impact on human health and the environment. All of the priority chemicals identified were phthalates. The project demonstrates the need for stronger, faster and more comprehensive regulation of groups of problematic chemicals such as phthalates. Read more about this project here.
For more information
For more information on phthalates, see this briefing on hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging, and our report ‘No Brainer: the impact of chemicals on children’s brain development, a cause for concern and a need for action’. ChemSec has produced a report ‘Replacing Phthalates: Why and how to substitute this hard-to-spell chemical group’.
You can also read about the latest news on phthalates in our blog posts.