Thursday, May 1, 2008

Just because you can't pronounce "phthalates" doesn't mean you can't avoid them

But it won't be easy. Phthalates (for the record, "phth" is pronounced like the "th" in "thumb," and that troublesome first syllable rhymes with "mal," as in the malformed masculine bits of lab animals exposed to phthalates) are a class of industrial chemicals found in a wide range of consumer products. They're used to make plastics pliable and to hold scent and color in a variety of items many people use every day.

You're familiar with "new car smell"? Phthalates. That cute rubber ducky in your bathtub? Phthalates. Most shampoos, body washes, deodorants, and cosmetics? Yup.

Phthalates have been in the news a lot lately as more and more people cotton on to their potential health hazards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (pdf), their health effects in humans "are not yet fully known," but "several studies in people have explored possible associations with developmental and reproductive outcomes (semen quality, genital development in boys, shortened pregnancy, and premature breast development in young girls)." The paper states that "more research is needed."

More research came out in February, when a study by University of Washington researchers concluded that "infant exposure to lotion, powder, and shampoo were significantly associated with increased urinary concentrations of monethyl phthalate, monomethyl phthalate, and monoisobutyl phthalate, and associations increased with the number of products used."

The European Union banned two phthalates in cosmetics in 2003, and all phthalates in toys in 2005. China and Mexico have also prohibited their use in toys. The U.S. has been a bit slower on the uptake. (And ironically, the other countries' bans are based largely on U.S. research.) Last year, California became the first state to ban the manufacture, sale, and distribution of children's products containing phthalates, but the restriction doesn't go into effect until 2009. In March, the U.S. Senate passed legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein for a similar ban in toys. If it becomes law, perhaps false "phthalate-free" labeling scandals like this one will be a thing of the past.

In the meantime, here are some tips for concerned consumers on how to avoid phthalates:

* Avoid items made of polyvinylchloride (PVC), which contains phthalates. Such products, like vinyl shower curtains, often have a strong odor. (Here's a helpful webpage on how to recognize phthalate-containing ingredients in labels.)

* Stay away from any product that has "fragrance" listed as an ingredient (see—I told you it wouldn't be easy!).

* And on the toy front, choose playthings made of latex or silicone (or ones that were made in Europe). has a searchable database of toys made of PVC, and has a text-messaging system that taps into that database: text "healthytoys" plus the name of the toy you're curious about to 41411.

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