Health: Plastic Oh-No

A chemical found in everything from nail polish to shower curtains may be linked to health problems

By Emily Gertz

As The Graduate once predicted, plastics have become ubiquitous. Unfortunately a common chemical additive of this now-

indispensible material, called phthalates, is raising some concerns. While recent research suggests that these chemicals may be dangerous to human health, a little knowledge can go a long way in helping to weigh the risks and make safe choices.

Phthalates (pronounced “thalates”) are plasticizers that are commonly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics pliable. A few of the products made from PVC softened with phthalates include shower curtains, floor tiles, and window blinds. Phthalates have been found in some soft plastic children’s toys, such as teethers and pacifiers (despite a much-touted voluntary phase-out several years ago), as well as some sippy cups and nipples for bottles. While plastic food containers typically have a recycling number embossed on the bottom—PVC is #3 —many other products may only note that they’re made of vinyl on their packaging.

Phthalates are sometimes added to other common products as well, such as caulk, paint, cosmetics, and toiletries. They make nail polishes flexible and durable, help lotions penetrate more deeply into the skin, cause fragrances to evaporate more slowly, and enable colors to last longer. Food wrap made of PVC is still used in food-service settings, like deli counters, although it’s largely been phased out of consumer products. PVC is also used to make soft plastic medical equipment, like bags for blood and intravenous fluids, tubing, and more. And if you happen to have an invitingly soft “jelly rubber” or “cyberskin” erotic toy in your bedside drawer, chances are it’s made from vinyl that’s been softened with phthalates.

Clearly, phthalates are very useful chemicals, but here’s the bad news: In some studies on rats and mice, exposure to high levels of phthalates damaged the liver, kidneys, and reproductive system. Reports published in 2002 and 2003 suggested that minute levels of phthalates were linked to DNA damage in human sperm. A 2005 study by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, two Harvard hospitals, and the Centers for Disease Control found that infants treated in intensive care units with equipment containing phthalates had high levels of the chemical in their bodies. And in another 2005 study, University of Rochester researchers found that exposure to everyday levels of phthalates in utero affected the reproductive development of infant boys: Mothers with higher exposures had sons with certain genital irregularities, as well as smaller penises than those born to mothers with the lowest exposures. These boys were also more likely to have an undescended testicle.

Phthalates generally enter the body via inhalation or absorption; heat, agitation, and age can accelerate their escape from plastics. That new-car smell everyone loves? It comes from phthalates. A car dashboard made with PVC can heat up to 200 degrees on a hot, sunny day, and UV rays accelerate outgassing. Phthalates are also lipophilic, or attracted to fats. Fat present in blood can actually draw them out of IV bags, for example, and carry them into the body.

So how much exposure is too much? Unfortunately, no one is quite sure what the safety threshold is. The amount of phthalates you might take in from any one source—an application of nail polish, the outgassing from your vinyl beach chair—is probably very small. But little research has been done on what our cumulative exposure may be from all the phthalates in our homes, workplaces, and schools. Given some of the alarming research findings of the past few years, though, why aren’t phthalates restricted until we know more?

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Issue 25

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