Phthalates are endocrine disrupters, widely present in the environment and able to impede mental and motor development in children by causing changes in the nascent brain. These chemicals are found in many consumer products, from shower curtains to plastic toys to shampoo and hair spray. Their ubiquity has led scientists to look more closely into the risks associated with exposure to phthalates during pregnancy. What they found was sufficiently disconcerting to make you scrutinize the products you buy if you are pregnant or contemplating being so.
Dr. Robyn Whyatt, from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, reported in September, 2011, that prenatal exposure to metabolites of four different types of phthalates significantly increases the chances of physical and mental delay, indicating the potential for future problems with gross and fine motor coordination. “Our results suggest that prenatal exposure to these phthalates adversely affects child mental, motor and behavioral development during the preschool years,” commented Dr. Whyatt, adding that, “The results add to a growing public health concern about the widespread use of phthalates in consumer products.” (Whyatt. 2011) Although the actual mechanisms by which phthalates wreak their malevolence are still being examined, their endocrine disruption has been specifically linked to thyroid hormone and testosterone production. Partner to the study, Dr. Pam Factor-Litvak explained that, “The results are concerning since increasing exposures from the lowest 25% to the highest 25% among the women in our study was associated with a doubling or tripling in the odds of motor and/or behavioral problems in the children.”
If you’re a baby boomer, you associate plastic with the cheap imported toys of the 50’s and 60’s, stuff that would snap in an instant. Plastics—plasticizers in the case of phthalates–actually are materials that make other materials easier to handle, more flexible and pliable, and less brittle. They work best if their molecules are both polar and non-polar, where the former help the plasticizer be retained in the system, and the latter decrease the attraction force between molecules to maintain flexibility. This is how hair spray works; it’s flexible. Otherwise, you’d be wearing a transparent motorcycle helmet.
Of the more than five hundred plasticizers available, fewer than a hundred are commonly used, phthalate esters being predominant, especially in PVC. The real name for the most often used of these chemicals is orthophthalates. It’s necessary to know that phthalates are not limited to the manufacture of containers, which is a common thought. They are also ingredients in cosmetics, shower curtains, teething rings and toys, primarily because they afford flexibility. However, they have the contemptible distinction of mimicking female hormones, resulting in the feminization of boys. It’s one thing to have swapped paternal inheritance for creeping momism as a social misfeasance, which is rectifiable, but this physical assault is unforgiveable.
There is more than one type of phthalate to which a fetus might respond, some being termed less dangerous than others. This is equivalent to saying that a person who is legitimately allergic to tree nuts will succumb more slowly to one type of nut than another. In both cases the outcome is undesirable. Delay of ossification in the skeleton with resultant deformities, cleft palates, eye deformation, and decreased fetal weight are but a few of the other abnormalities offered by phthalate plasticizers. These are dose-dependent anomalies, but determining how much is too much is subjective. (Saillenfait. 2009) The limit for phthalate exposure is set at 5 mg/kg of body weight a day…in rats. . (Grande. 2006) People are not likely to get anything close to that dose unless they eat the plastic.
To assuage any fears, know that the PETE, polyethylene terephthalate, used for peanut butter jars, bottled water and juices, and salad dressings is not chemically similar to the phthalates we address here. Phthalates are additives, not plastics. PETE (aka PET) is not an orthophthalate. If the dangers come from prenatal exposure to phthalates, it pays for the new mom to read labels. Since 2002, safe alternatives are available for the manufacture of plastic wraps, food containers, toys, PVC pipe, medical devices, and health and beauty aids. Citric acid esters are one of them. To find out if your product is safe, check the ingredients. If there is no label, as perhaps with a teething ring, either call the maker or leave it on the shelf.
Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates Linked to Decreased Mental and Motor Development and Increased Behavioral Problems at Age Three
Robin M. Whyatt, Xinhua Liu, Virginia A. Rauh, Antonia M. Calafat, Allan C. Just, Lori Hoepner, Diurka Diaz, James Quinn, Jennifer Adibi, Frederica P. Perera, Pam Factor-Litvak
Maternal Prenatal Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Child Mental, Psychomotor and Behavioral Development at Age Three Years
Environ Health Perspect. 2011. doi:10.1289/ehp.1103705 [Online Ahead of Print]
Saillenfait AM, Gallissot F, Sabaté JP.
Differential developmental toxicities of di-n-hexyl phthalate and dicyclohexyl phthalate administered orally to rats.
J Appl Toxicol. 2009 Aug;29(6):510-21.
Grande SW, Andrade AJ, Talsness CE, Grote K, Chahoud I.
A dose-response study following in utero and lactational exposure to di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate: effects on female rat reproductive development.
Toxicol Sci. 2006 May;91(1):247-54. Epub 2006 Feb 13.
Barbara Kolarika, Carl-Gustaf Bornehaga, Kiril Naydenove, et al
The concentrations of phthalates in settled dust in Bulgarian homes in relation to building characteristic and cleaning habits in the family
Atmospheric Environment. 42(37); Dec 2008: 8553-8559
Lyche JL, Gutleb AC, Bergman A, Eriksen GS, Murk AJ, Ropstad E, Saunders M, Skaare JU.
Reproductive and developmental toxicity of phthalates.
J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2009 Apr;12(4):225-49.
Deblonde T, Cossu-Leguille C, Hartemann P.
Emerging pollutants in wastewater: A review of the literature.
Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2011 Aug 30. [Epub ahead of print]
Yolton K, Xu Y, Strauss D, Altaye M, Calafat AM, Khoury J.
Prenatal exposure to bisphenol A and phthalates and infant neurobehavior.
Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2011 Aug 10. [Epub ahead of print]
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
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