You might be asking “what are phthalates, and why should I care about them?”
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are molecules used in plastics, food storage, cosmetics, fragrances, lotions, hygiene products, and some medications. Because of their chemical nature, they’re easily released into the environment and can leech into our water supply. In addition, pthalates are often used in vinyl blinds, PVC flooring, and most manufactured plastics. They’re almost everywhere you could possibly imagine, including the homes we live in and the food we eat.
What makes them scary are their effects on our health. Our endocrine system regulates our growth, metabolism, and fertility using hormones. Many phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means they disrupt the normal functioning of our body’s endocrine systems. Therefore, this disruption presents negative effects to people of all ages, even to unborn babies. Men with higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine were associated with DNA damage in their sperm.
Dangers to Unborn Babies
Children born to pregnant women with higher concentrations of phthalates in their urine were more likely to be born before term, born with sexual defects, and be born with lower birth weight. Most alarming of all, the effects of higher exposures to phthalates in utero can persist for years into the child’s future, causing childhood obesity, stunted intellectual development, abnormal sexual development, behavioral dysfunction, childhood obesity, and decreased mental and motor development.
Danger to Adults
Adults exposed to phthalates also experience negative side effects. Adult men with higher exposures to phthalates may see decreased masculinity and testosterone levels, and be more likely to develop insulin resistance and obesity. In addition, higher exposure to pthalates may increase the risk for breast cancer in adult women.
Phthalates may even contribute to obesity[15,16], insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. I don’t know about you, but these are outcomes I definitely want to avoid! You may think that you’re not at risk, but according to one study, most people have detectable levels of phthalates in their urine.
Can we avoid them?
Now, how do we eliminate exposure to them? Well the bad news is, it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate our exposure to them, but the good news is, we can greatly reduce our exposure. First, we must understand where phthalates come from and attempt to find phthalate-free alternatives. There are some cases where our hands are tied. For instance, if you commute by car everyday, you’ll be exposed to your vehicle’s dashboard, steering wheel, and gearshift which likely contain phthalates.
I suppose you could start riding a motorcycle or using public transportation, but for most people this may be impractical. Also, if you’re in a life-threatening situation and you require an IV drip, very likely those bags will be made with phthalates and it will be pumped directly into your bloodstream. While I’m against putting phthalates in my body, I’m willing to bend the rules a bit if it means I get to live!
But even though it may be almost impossible to avoid them, we can eliminate the vast majority of our exposure to them.
1) “Phthalates”, Center for Disease Control, 2009.
2) Bertelsen RJ, Carlsen KCL, Calafat AM, Hoppin JA, Håland G, Mowinckel P, Carlsen KH, Løvik M. “Urinary Biomarkers for Phthalates Associated with Asthma in Norwegian Children”. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012.
3) Albert, O.; Jegou, B. (2013). “A critical assessment of the endocrine susceptibility of the human testis to phthalates from fetal life to adulthood”. Human Reproduction Update
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