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Phthalate Phthreat

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by Worldchanging NYC local blogger, Amy Shaw:

Have you heard of phthalates (pronounced “thalates”)? Did you know that, though linked to kidney, liver, and reproductive system damage and restricted in the European Union, phthalates are widely used to make everyday consumer and hospital products, from teething rings and hospital IV bags to nail polish and sex toys? Though studies are inconclusive about how much exposure is too much, little is known about the cumulative effects of phthalate exposure over time.

So reports our own Worldchanging NYC editor, Emily Gertz. For the past few years, Emily has been researching phthalates, chemical additives commonly used to make plastics (like PVC) and other synthetics pliable. And her latest article, “Plastic Oh-No,” appears in the April/May issue of Plenty magazine.

Despite worrying studies and a recent voluntary phase-out, phthalates are still found in loads of American consumer products. This is because, shockingly, “there is no government requirement to demonstrate safety before chemicals are used in products,” according to Joel Tickner, Sc.D. at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who spoke to Emily for her article. The feds only step in to ban a chemical if it is found to be so harmful that “the benefits of regulating it significantly outweigh the costs of the regulation to industry,” according to Tickner.

Phthalates reach into the world of crafts, as well -- my world. Besides some bottle nipples, beach chairs, plastic food containers, and car dashboards, phthalates are also used to make polymer clay, those colorful little blocks common to preschools, art classrooms, and even professional artist’s studios. Emily didn't mention this in her article, but New Hampshire potter Kit Cornell has been working to raise awareness of this problem for years. As Kit has written, handling this material allows phthalates to be absorbed through the skin, and when “fired” in the toaster oven, their hazardous fumes enter the air (heating speeds the off-gassing of phthalates). Maybe polymer clay is not so kid-friendly after all.

As green-minded as we all are, it is likely that all of us have phthalates lurking in our homes. For example, I’ve been buying cheap clear vinyl shower curtains for years. They’re my favorite $3 solution to cleaning up for houseguests. But given the possibility that my shower curtain could be setting me and my husband up for producing sons with genital irregularities, not to mention liver and kidney damage, I’m ready to go for a greener solution.

Fortunately, as Emily points out in her Plenty article, we can make choices in what we buy to protect ourselves from phthalates. First, we can opt out of purchasing PVC products (coded #3 for recycling), anything with “DBP” as an ingredient, or products with synthetic fragrance. Next, we can look up the cosmetics and beauty products we use in the Skin Deep Database to see whether or not they’re phthalate-free. And we can spread the word.

The bottom line is that we have to confront these ubiquitous issues and make more mindful, educated choices. At the end of the day, our health is far more beautiful and economical than a polymer clay necklace, the latest shade of pink on our nails, or a clear vinyl shower curtain.

Image: New vinyl shower curtain, sharynmorrow/flickr

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Thanks for the nice write-up, Amy!

There's progress on the cosmetics front:

- Nail polish makers are now selling phthalate-free formulas in the E.U., thanks to stricter E.U. regulations. And some say they're phasing out or have phased out phthalates out of the formulations they're selling in the U.S., including OPI and Orly. If you want to know what's in your nail polish, calling the company's consumer line can be a good place to start. At least they'll know you're concerned.

The Skin Deep Database is a great place to start researching health and beauty products. But some of the info there is becoming dated, and I don't know what the EWG's plans are to update it (EWG is a non-profit). So if you find a product you like in the SDD that has an ingredient you're worried about, do a little more research to find out if the company has since changed the ingredients (search online news, call the company). Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven't.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 21 Apr 07

Great post. Phthalates are, in fact, one of the 12 controversial products in the "dirty dozen" - including food dyes, DEA, formaldehyde, parabens, petrolatum, toluene, and sodium lauryl sulfate. Fortunately, more and more products are being made without these chemicals. It pays to read the fine print when buying these products -- particularly personal care products (our skin absorbs about 60% of these chemicals), and baby products. Let's spread the word!

Posted by: Lydia Diaz on 28 Apr 07

Interesting post! I suspect I have had a lot of exposure to these products, however, I'm still not clear as to how much of a threat phthalates pose. Between these and other harmful chemicals, the task of keeping track of our exposure to them would be an overwhelming one, at least for me. I'd get pretty stressed out if I were constantly worrying about all the chemicals that could potentially lead to health problems. I'm a fairly young guy yet I know all too well how damaging stress can be. It's the culprit responsible for my bad back and the stomach ulcer I had a few years ago. Is it worth the trouble?

Posted by: PG Alexander on 1 May 07



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