Seventeen students in a school in Singapore recently came down with pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. Everyone initially thought that the source of their illness was snacks at a class party. To everyone’s surprise, the culprit turned out to be phthalates in a toy that they played with just before eating. As the children did not wash their hands, the chemicals transferred from their hands into their mouths.
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics flexible. The specific phthalates found in the toy were dibutyl phthalates (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalates (DEHP). The US has classified DEHP as a “probable human carcinogen” while the European Chemical Agency calls it a “Substance of Very High Concern”.
Phthalates are widely used. They are in soft PVC products like packaging, flooring, mats, milk bottles, toys, food containers and so on. Soft PVC products contain over 40% of phthalates by weight. The “new car” smell that motorists love comes from phthalates emitting from the dashboards of vehicles that have been in the sun. As the motor vehicle cools downs, the phthalates re-condense as an oily film on the inside of the windscreen. Yet another reason not to buy new cars.
I always avoid heating food up in plastic containers. Plastics with recycling codes 3 and 7, in particular, tend to contain phthalates. I also stay away from personal care products which contain phthalates. Yes, many cosmetics, fragrances, soaps, shampoos, lotions, deodorants and even baby powder contain phthalates. Phthalates are popularly used to enhance fragrances in skin care, hair care and beauty products like perfumes, hair spray, and nail polish. These chemicals are also found in environmental products like wood finishers and lubricants.
Manufacturers are sneaky. Phthalates are rarely listed on the ingredients label. Be smart; look out for proxy ingredients like “fragrance”.
A 2009 survey on phthalate levels in the environment by the US Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that exposure to these chemicals was extremely widespread. Concerned, US authorities warned that DEHP was particularly likely to cause serious development problems in the sexual reproductive systems of young male children. Phthalates act as hormone disrupters. DBP and DEHP, especially, disrupt aromotase, an enzyme crucial to the metabolism of sex hormones. These chemicals cats as anti-androgens, or anti-male hormones.
In 2003, a Boston study discovered that men exposed to phthalates had fewer sperm, which also tended to be weaker and deformed. Statistics shows that male infertility is increasing at an alarming rate in industrialized nations, where exposure to phthalates is high. Two common male birth defects are undescended testes and hypospadias (a penile deformity).
Even more alarmingly, it is women of child-bearing age who have the most exposure to phthalates, very likely because of their heavy usage of personal care products containing harmful ingredients like phthalates. Not only are they in danger of producing male babies with sexual development problems, but they are also at risk of developing cancer. Are you using phthalate-free skin care products?
Safety-conscious company Neways International avoids using at least 3,000 questionable ingredients – including phthalates – in its personal care products, such as skin care, hair care, oral hygiene and beauty products. Instead, it uses safe and gentle ingredients as well as technological processes. What’s in the personal care products you use?
Beauty at any price – is it worth dying for?