Everyone knows that BPA (bis-phenol-A) is evil: BPA is an endocrine-disruptor. I’ve written about it here before (Bottled Water: Malignant Indulgence, and Better Living Through LESS Chemistry). We all know to avoid anything that looks like it might contain BPA – basically, most plastics. But even plastics that are “BPA-free” may contain the other common endocrine-disrupting, toxic chemical class – the Phthalates. Worse, phthalates (pronounced “thalates”) are EVERYWHERE. Phthalates are in our food; phthalates are in most of our grooming products; phthalates are in our air, and in our water! So, what exactly is the problem with phthalates, and what can we do about it to minimize our exposure? More importantly, what can we do to minimize the exposure of our children to phthalates? And MOST importantly: how can you minimize your the exposure of your fetus to phthalates during pregnancy?
Ubiquitous: They’re Everywhere
Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid (see figure). Like BPA, they are used in manufacturing as plasticizers: they are added to plastics to increase their flexibility. They make plastics “more plastic.” One result is that plasticizers increase durability of the plastics that they are added to. Because of their role in the manufacture of “raw plastic” and completed plastic items, phthalates are everywhere in our environment. For reasons that are not clear to me, phthalates are also used in the manufacture of enteric coatings by the pharmaceutical industry. That’s right: many of our medications are made with phthalates in the coating! As I review their toxicity, you’ll appreciate how crazy and ironic this is. Because phthalates are in virtually all plastics, and because they are used as emulsifiers, phthalates are in high concentration in our kids’ toys, in packaging of our food, in paints, inks, and textiles. They are everywhere.
So what’s so bad about phthalates?
Phthalates comprise a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors: they interfere with the way hormones work in our bodies. Specifically, phthalates are androgen-inhibitors. That’s right: androgens are the male hormones. That means phthalates can interfere with normal male development during pregnancy. In fact, gender development – the reproductive system – develops so early in the fetus, that phthalates can have an effect on the developing male fetus even before a woman knows that she is pregnant. Exposure to phthalates during pregnancy is a problem. Read the research by Dr. Barrett, in resources below.
How to Minimize Exposure to Phthalates During Pregnancy (and always)
It’s actually impossible to give you definite advice for eliminating your exposure, mostly because phthalates are everywhere: it’s impossible to avoid them completely.
However, here are some general tips for reducing your exposure (and that of your children):
- Do not microwave food in plastic. Chemicals leach out of plastics, especially when they are heated.
- More generally, do not store food in plastic, even “BPA-free” plastics, for the same reason.
- Store food, and heat food, in glass and stainless.
- Select fresh foods when possible: avoid canned foods (phthalates are used to “line” the cans to reduce the tinny taste of canned food. Better taste, more toxic.
- Avoid processed foods that arrive in plastic containers, whenever possible.
- Choose organic foods whenever possible: many pesticides contain phthalates. Double benefit: This helps reduce your exposure to pesticides and exposure to phthalates.
- Choose personal-care products (cosmetics, shampoo, etc.) that say they are phthalate-free – especially if you are pregnant with a boy, since we know that male reproductive development is especially affected by phthalates.
Do what you can using that list, and don’t stress about it further (because we know that stress affects fetal development, too).
The EPA’s Phthalate “Action Plan Summary”: http://www.epa.gov/opptintr/existingchemicals/pubs/actionplans/phthalates.html
EPA Toxicity and Exposure Assessment for Children’s Health (TEACH) on Phthalates (free pdf): http://www.epa.gov/teach/chem_summ/phthalates_summary.pdf
Full EPA Phthalates Action Plan (March, 2012; free pdf): http://www.epa.gov/oppt/existingchemicals/pubs/actionplans/phthalates_actionplan_revised_2012-03-14.pdf
Articles by Dr. Emily Barrett, University of Rochester (my undergrad alma mater), on Environmental Health News site: http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/Members/ebarrett
Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog.
That wonderful photo of me is by Chris Stranad; here is his site: http://www.chrisstranadphotography.com/Index.html
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