Phthalates are widely known to be endocrine disruptors, chemicals which interfere with the endocrine or hormonal system. Serious questions as to their safety have been raised. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies a type of phthalates called DEHP as a possible carcinogen, and the National Toxicology Program lists another form called DIP as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Most of the problems showing up in recent studies, however, emphasize the effects of phthalates on the reproductive system.
A study from the University of Rochester School of Medicine studied the levels of phthalates in the urine of pregnant women, and asked them how often they had no interest in sex in the months before they become pregnant. Women who had the highest levels of phthalates were much more likely to report a lack of interest in sex — about 250 percent — than those who had the least amounts of the chemical in their bodies. Experts believe phthalates lower libido because they interfere with the manufacture of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
Phthalates have been linked to low testosterone levels, low sperm counts, and less mobile sperm in men. Frighteningly, some studies have shown that phthalates initiate a signal that causes testicular cells to die. Other studies have found that phthalates may lower hormone levels in both men and women.
Phthalates may be doing the worst damage to unborn boys. Pregnant women who were exposed to phthalates at work had up to a three-fold increase in boys with hypospadias, a reproductive birth defect that causes difficulties with urination. Phthalate exposure in the womb also increased the risk of undescended testicles, and boys showed less masculine behavior than boys who were exposed to lower levels in utero. Hundreds of studies on rats have found that pregnant rats exposed to phthalates produced male offspring with numerous reproductive abnormalities.
Phthalates have been implicated in premenopausal breast cancer. Women working in the automotive and canning industries — both of which use phthalates in manufacturing — have a fivefold increase in breast cancer. A Taiwanese study found that exposure to phthalates correlated with premature breast development in girls.
Phthalates have also been linked to asthma, behavioral troubles in children, and neurological developmental problems in newborns. A 2007 study of men found a link between phthalates and obesity and insulin resistance, and a 2013 study found that children with high levels of the chemical were at increased risk for insulin resistance.
To lessen the load of phthalates in your system, do the following:
• Read ingredients and avoid products containing DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimenthyl phthalate).
• Avoid fragrances. They don’t have to list phthalates that are considered part of a proprietary formula.
• Buy less plastic. Stick with plastic containers with the numbers 2 or 5 on the bottom, and avoid those labeled numbers 3 and 7.
• Buy less processed and pre-packaged foods. Phthalates are commonly used in food processing and packaging. Cut your exposure by choosing frozen products and those in glass jars or “brick” cartons. Even the plastic tubing used in manufacturing can leach chemicals into food.
• Look for products labeled “phthalate free.”