Babies and children are uniquely vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures given their developing nervous and reproductive systems. When exposed to neurotoxic chemicals called phthalates, they are at increased risk for learning, attention, and behavioral disorders. The risks are especially acute when the exposures occur when babies are still in the womb. Women have higher exposure to phthalates found in personal care products than men, and Black and Latina women have higher exposure overall than white women, making their children more susceptible than others.
These are among the many worrisome findings released by Project TENDR, a group of more than 50 scientists and health professionals who are devoted to protecting pregnant women and children from chemicals and pollutants that harm the brain. Project TENDR recommends taking immediate action individually and at state and federal levels of government to reduce exposure to phthalates. “There is no compelling rationale to continue waiting for more evidence when phthalates can be eliminated from most uses,” they said in their report, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health.
What are phthalates and why are they so toxic?
Phthalates are a group of man-made chemicals with names like di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP). They are added to products to make the plastic more flexible and harder to break. Phthalates are found in dozens of consumer products, including cosmetics and personal care products, vinyl flooring and wall coverings, medical supplies, and food production materials and packaging. They’re often used as a plasticizer in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastics because they make the PVC more pliable and flexible. They’re also used in many common air fresheners and cleaning products to help convey the chemicals that impart synthetic fragrances.
“Phthalates have long been known to harm reproductive tract development in males,” Project TENDR reports, but now there is “mounting evidence in humans and experimental animal studies, to conclude phthalates can do lasting harm to child brain development.”
Phthalates have a toxic effect on children because their unique chemical composition interferes with normal brain development. This is especially true for fetuses, whose developing brains are particularly vulnerable to chemical disruption. Research shows that phthalates can be transferred from mother to fetus during pregnancy.
“There are now dozens of studies from countries around the world finding adverse associations between phthalate exposure and … behavior, cognitive function, and even brain white matter microstructure,” lead author Dr. Stephanie Engel said.
One source of exposure may come from inhaling phthalates present in synthetic fragrances found in perfume, makeup, nail polish, shampoo, and body lotion. Phthalate exposure may also result from inhaling contaminated dust emitted by vinyl flooring, or from transmission via medical products (like plastic IV lines and blood bags).
A study done at George Washington University found that non-Hispanic Blacks had higher levels of phthalates in their bodies overall than other populations, suggesting “a potential connection between neighborhood environments, [lack of healthy] food choices, and phthalates exposure” and mirroring an acknowledgment by the National Institutes of Health that minority populations often have greater environmental exposures to potentially harmful agents than other groups.
In 2006, a federal law banned six types of phthalates in new toys, but did not recall previously manufactured toys like soft vinyl books and rubber ducks that could still contain phthalates. Meanwhile, garden hoses, plastic raincoats, and some adhesives are among the many additional products that might contain phthalates.
5 Ways to Avoid Phthalates
- Limit Fast Food—As much as possible, minimize consumption of fast food so as to avoid the wrappings and containers that might be contaminated with phthalates.
- Read Consumer Product Labels and Ingredients Lists—Look for the words “phthalate free.” Make sure ingredients lists don’t contain the word “phthalates” or acronyms for phthalates, like DEHP, DBP, and DEP.
- Choose Non-Plastic Baby Bottles and Toys—Pick stainless steel and glass baby bottles with silicone sleeves and nipples rather than plastic. Select toys made from wool, wood, cotton, paper, or cloth rather than plastic.
- Choose Phthalate-Free Makeup, Personal Care Products and Cleansers—Again, read labels and ingredients lists. Minimize the total number of products you use. Make your own safe cleansers using baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, and water.
- Contact Your State and Federal Elected Officials—Urge them to regulate medical devices that expose infants to DEHP, and to revoke the use of phthalates in food packaging.