A recent study came -again- to incriminate certain environmental toxins known as phthalates as being responsible for pregnancy losses. Women undergoing assisted reproduction techniques (in-vitro fertilization or intra-uterine insemination) had urine exams to assess the presence of certain phthalates; it became evident that women with high levels of phthalates had up to three times increased risk of pregnancy loss. The study was recently presented at the Annual Meeting of American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).
For several years now we have been hearing about the toxic effects of phthalates, but what are they exactly? Where do we find them? Are they really harmful? Check out this article to learn more about these enigmatic toxins…
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastics and make them more flexible (they are also known as plasticizers). These substances do not bound to plastics, therefore they are continuously released into the air, foods or liquids. Certain phthalates are used as dissolving agents for other materials.
Where do we find them?
Phthalates are used in an astounding array of products. They are most commonly found in:
- Plastic bottles.
- Plastic containers and plastic wraps.
- Cosmetics: in creams and lotions (to help them penetrate and soften the skin), in perfumes (to help them last longer), in hair sprays (to reduce stiffness), in nail polish (to prevent chipping), in deodorants, soaps, shampoos and almost every cosmetic with fragrance, including baby products.
- Household products: air fresheners, paints, plastic flooring.
- Plastic toys and other baby products such as teethers.
- Certain medical devices, e.g., blood bags, intubation tubes, intravenous catheters.
- Objects made of vinyl or PVC.
- Phthalates are present even in seemingly unexpected sources. One example is milk: even in glass bottles, high levels of phthalates have been found, presumedly due to the plastic tubing used in milking machines.
We get exposed to phthalates by:
- Ingestion: eating food contaminated from food packaging; drinking beverages from plastic bottles that leach the chemical; sucking plastic objects (e.g., baby toys, teethers).
- Absortion: using cosmetics products. According to the CDC, women of childbearing age have the highest levels of phthalates, possibly due to the use of cosmetics.
- Inhalation: breathing dust or fumes from products containing vinyl (vinyl floors, the interior of cars, shower curtains, etc).
Which are the most commonly used phthalates?
-In cosmetics: the primary phthalates used in cosmetic products have been dibutylphthalate (DBP), used in nail polishes; dimethylphthalate (DMP), used in hair sprays; and diethylphthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances. According to latest survey of cosmetics conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010, DBP and DMP are being used rarely, while DEP is the most commonly used phthalate. The use of DBP and DEHP is banned in the European Union but they are still found in cosmetic products.
-In food packaging: the most commonly used is Di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). Bisphenol-A (BPA) is not a phthalate, but is also being used as plasticizer in food packaging and plastic bottles.
-In paints, plastic and PVC objects, solvents and adhesives: DEHP, Diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) and DBP (also called DnBP).
- permanent ban (permanently prohibits the sale of any “children’s toy or child care article” individually containing concentrations of more than 0.1% of DBP, BBP or DEHP);
- interim ban (prohibits on an interim basis the sale of “any children’s toy that can be placed in a child’s mouth” or “child care article” containing concentrations of more than 0.1% of DNOP, DINP, or DIDP); and
- currently unrestricted under Section 108 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (DMP, DEP, DIBP, DCHP, DIHEPP, DIOP, DPHP).
Similar recommendations apply in Europe, where the six above-mentioned products are banned.
What is the evidence linking phthalates to pregnancy losses?
In addition to the recent American study (where they measured metabolites of DEHP), two previous studies had found a relationship between phthalates and miscarriages:
In 2012, a Danish study found an increased risk of early pregnancy loss in women with high urine levels of DEHP‘s breakdown products. More recently, a Chinese study, comparing urine samples of women who had miscarriages and healthy women found that pregnancy loss was associated with higher levels or three phthalates: DEP, DBP, and di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP).
Another American study also found and increased risk of miscarriages in women with high levels of BPA.
Eliminating phthalates and BPA from our lives is virtually impossible, but you can take some measures to minimize exposure, especially if you are trying to conceive, are pregnant or have young children”
Are there any other health risks?
Phthalates are widely known as endocrine disruptors: they mimic hormones, interfering with their function. Some possible consequences of this are:
Effect on male fertility: phthalate exposure in men was associated with reduced fecundity.
Birth defects in baby boys: several studies have found abnormalities in baby boys’ genitals when pregnant women were exposed to high levels of certain phthalates; another study found increased risk of hypospadias (the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis) in occupational exposure of pregnant women.
Neurological problems in newborns, infants and children: such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reduced IQ, behaviour problems.
Asthma: in children when pregnant women were exposed to high level of phthalates.
Breast cancer: a small study showed increased breast cancer risk, but the evidence is not conclusive; there is a large study being conducted in the USA, which will provide more clear answers on this matter.
What can I do to reduce exposure to phthalates?
Eliminating phthalates and BPA from our lives is virtually impossible -they seem to be everywhere- but you can take some measures to minimize exposure, especially if you are trying to conceive, are pregnant or have young children:
- Read labels on personal care products. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not forced to list phthalates, and they can be added as a part of the “fragrance.” Many companies have voluntarily removed phthalates from their products, so you may search for products labelled as “phthalate-free”.
- Limit the use of baby care products in babies and young children.
- Don’t microwave food in plastic, or use only “microwave safe” and phthalate-free containers to microwave food or drinks. Phthalates can leach from containers (or plastic wrap) into foods on contact and when heated, particularly oily foods or with a high fat content. Don’t put plastic containers in the dishwasher (heat will increase phthalates leaching).
- Replace plastic bottles, cups, dishes and food containers with those made of glass, porcelain or stainless steel, especially for hot food and beverages.
- Check labels on plastic bottles and containers: choose only those with recycle codes 1, 2, 4, or 5. Plastics made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are safer than those made of PVC (“PET” or “HDPE” may be printed on the label or the bottom of the bottle).
- Use only toys and toothbrushes labeled “phthalate- free”. There are strict regulations banning the most dangerous phthalates in toys and baby products, both in the USA and in Europe.
- Reduce your use of canned foods, as they are often lined with material that contains BPA. Prefer fresh products or those in glass containers. Avoid canned milk (including canned formula for babies).
- Choose only bottles and cups that are BPA-free. In fact, BPA was banned in all baby products in 2011 in Europe, and since 2012 in the USA.
- When using paints or solvents, keeps the area well ventilated. Prefer natural paints, phthalate-free (DBP is the phthalate usually used in these products).
- Choose non-vinyl products, such as shower curtains, raincoats or furniture, as the chemical off-gassing from these products introduces phthalates to your environment.
- Keep your house clean, as phthalates can remain in dust.
- Avoid air fresheners; prefer essential oils instead.
Is anything being done?
As people are becoming more aware of the harmful effects of phthalates, increasing information is being available to consumers; websites such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have actively advocated the elimination of dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products. As a result, certain companies and retailers have been taking measures to reduce toxic substances in their products.
Initiatives are also being taken at governmental level. European authorities have restricted the use of phthalates in some baby products, cosmetics, and plastics designed to come into contact with food; more phthalates will be soon banned from medical equipment, electrical and electronic devices. Recently, a very extensive Report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel on Phthalates and Phthalates alternatives (CHAP) analyzed the available data on each phthalate and phthalates alternative and provided recommendations, which will hopefully lead to banning certain phthalates that proved to be toxic.