Phthalates Hidden in Consumer Products: Sustainable Living at Home

What builds up in your love handles and will stay with you forever? Not fat, but phthalates. Sustainable Living at Home's series on consumer products is taking a look at some of the harmful ingredients hidden within everyday household items. In our Drop Dead, not Gorgeous series on hair, skin, and body care products we have identified the two major offenders for serious human health issues: Carcinogens and Endocrine Disruptors. Phthalates are Endocrine Disruptors which have been found in over 72% of perfumes, hair care products, nail polish, and hand lotions. According to plastic industry groups, they are harmless. According to scientific studies on human and habitat health, they are identified as having an acute to chronic risk dependent on the exposure type and rate.

What are phthalates? Phthalates are the most common plasticizers in the World. Originally created from oil, they are now used in a large variety of consumer products from PVC to shampoo. Given the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we can all do our part to reduce our reliance and our choice in consumer products that are dependent upon oil and its hazardous extraction. Since phthalates are one of the many products created from oil,  simply moving away from them and embracing sustainable living would help the ecological devastation that awaits if we continue with our oil addiction. Yet the hidden deleterious effects of phthalates goes far deeper than our oil consumption. Whether industry bodies choose to accept the scientific studies or not, the phthalate-rich products they are creating are having increasingly harmful effects on human health.

The Phthalate-Human Health Connection. First, when you comb through ingredient lists, you will not find phthalates. Not because they aren't in your consumer products, but because it is not required by law for them to be listed. You can find them most often in flexible plastics like shower curtains, rubber duckies, and even nail polish remover. Once phthalates enter the body, they build up in fatty tissue, similar to compounds like DDT. The highest health risks that have been studied are on fetal and child development. As an endocrine disruptor, phthalates change the amounts of estrogen and testosterone in an animal. For male children, the effects can be quite severe during fetal development, causing their gender development to be stunted or increasingly more feminine than masculine.

Where a Phthalates found? The most high risk places to find phthalates are in your food and in dermal products like lotions, nail polish, and shampoo. Lower risks include drinking water, indoor and ambient air, sediment, and soil. Since phthalates build up in fatty tissue, eating animals or consuming other things that may have been exposed to phthalates have an increased risk. The EU banned most forms of phthalates from consumer products quite some time ago, in the US, the EPA recently put several types of phthalates on a "risk" list. Companies like Avon, SC Johnson, Johnson & Johnson, Ilumina Organics, and Pharmacopia have all made commitments to being phthalate and most also have committed to being paraben-free, both known endocrine disruptors. Common household products include flexible plastics like shower curtains, most types of plastic toys for adults and/or children, food containers, and body care products.

Why aren't all forms of Phthalates banned? First, much of our built environment is dependent on oil-based phthalates like medical equipment. Second, because the industry is not utilizing the Precautionary Principle, they are going by the Wait and See methodology for each type of phthalate. Similar to the analogy of throwing a frog in boiling water versus heating up the water slowly with the frog inside, phthalates will have deleterious effects on our developmental health either way you cut it. Simply because something hasn't been regulated or tested enough does not negate it's possible negative impact. If the majority of scientific studies over the past decade point to using precaution, it may be in our best interest to truly do so.

So next time you inhale that "New Car Smell" don't be so sure that it comes without a hidden health cost.

For a critical look at Phthalates, watch CBS's 60 minutes investigation, review the EPA ratings, and the EU Phthalate regulations and studies. Remember not all phthalates are created, consumed, or impact the human body equally. For more information and tips keep your eyes on this Series on Beauty's Real Do's and Don'ts for Sustainable Living.

Photo Credit: Want Toxic Free campaign.