The research, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, tracked levels of phthalates, chemicals added to plastic products to keep them soft and flexible and to fragranced products to prevent their scents from dissipating, inside average Americans. There 20 varieties of phthalates in use, and some classes are suspected of interfering with hormones and causing birth defects in children. Three phthalates—DEHP, DnBP, and BBzP—have been banned from children's toys because of their damaging effects.
The authors used data from the CDC, which monitors blood and urine levels of phthalates, to see how levels of those three phthalates found in humans have changed over the past decade, and what they found was good—and very bad. While levels of those three phthalates have dropped significantly—anywhere from 20 to 50 percent—levels of other, equally damaging phthalates have risen significantly. Levels of one phthalate, DiBP, rose more than 200 percent, despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency considers it a chemical of concern. Levels of another phthalate, DiNP, rose 150 percent, even though it was recently added California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals that cause cancer.
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"Studies like this raise more questions than they answer," says Ami Zota, PhD, lead author and assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. "We don't know what changes in our consumer environment are leading to these shifts," she says, noting that DiNP and DiBP are probably being used as replacements for the three banned phthalates. "One of the most important messages of our study is the importance of disclosure of what's in consumer products, which right now is not very complete."
Companies aren't required to disclose phthalates in most instances, so avoiding the chemicals requires avoiding products that might contain them. You may think that means just staying away from plastic products, but in our increasingly synthetic world, you're probably being exposed to plastic in places you'd never expect, such as these eight products you'd never suspect could harbor phthalates:
#1: Your food. Pesticides contain phthalates as inert ingredients; those phthalates build up in the soil and, as a result, are in your food, according to studies from the University of Michigan.
Avoid it: This can be hard. University of Washington researchers have found that people sticking to an all-organic, plastic-container-free diet for a week saw their phthalate levels soar, for reasons the researchers couldn't directly pinpoint. But their general advice: Avoid fatty animal products (it's suspected that phthalates accumulate in fat) and eat fresh food as much as possible.
#2: Your medicine. Medicines labeled "enteric coated," "time release," "film coated," or "safety coated" are, in reality, coated with plastic films that contain phthalates, including DnBP and DEP, two phthalates linked to hormone disruption.
Avoid it: Over-the-counter medications are required to list phthalates as inactive ingredients, making them easy to avoid. For prescription meds that might be coated in a film of some sort, ask your pharmacist if phthalate-free versions exist.
#3: Your floors and walls. Floor coverings like fake linoleum are commonly made with vinyl that contains a wide variety of phthalates, including BBzP, the phthalate banned from children's toys but NOT from the floors the kids crawl around on. Likewise, wallpaper is made with vinyl, and phthalates, which aren't bound to the plastic, attach to the dust you inhale as the materials break down.
Avoid it: Opting for real linoleum or for hardwood is a good way to get plastic out from underfoot. Walls can be painted with old-school paints like these made from milk by-products, since vinyl polymers are used even in "greener" paints.
#4: Your computer. Those cables and cords connecting your monitor to your mouse? All coated in vinyl. The most common phthalate found in wires and cables is DiDP, which has been linked to asthma.
Avoid it: Wash your hands frequently throughout the day to wash off residues, and try to keep your hands away from your face while working so that you don't ingest contaminated dust.
#5: Your purse and/or briefcase. Anything made with "faux leather" is really plastic made with vinyl, so it's yet another potential source of phthalate exposure.
Avoid it: Opt for real leather or canvas. If you prefer synthetic materials, look for nylon coated with polyurethane, which will repel water without exposing you to phthalates.
#6: Your shampoo. If it's scented, it contains phthalates. In fact, scented products of any sort are your primary exposure source to DEP, a phthalate linked to respiratory problems and endocrine disruption. The good news is that levels of DEP have been declining, according to Zota's study. The bad news? We don't know what other phthalate might be replacing it.
Avoid it: Skip fragranced personal care products altogether, or buy those scented only with pure plant essential oils. You can find such products via the Skin Deep Database.
#7: Your cosmetics. There are actually plastic polymers in those powders and lipsticks you use to add some color to your look. And those polymers contain DnBP, one of the phthalates banned from kid's products, as well as DiBP, which can interfere with hormones.
Avoid it: Consult the Skin Deep Database again to find safer, phthalate-free cosmetics.
#8: Your car. This one might not be all that surprising, considering the sheer quantity of plastic you encounter behind the wheel, but it's worth highlighting, especially if you spend a good portion of your day commuting. Of the 20 phthalates on the market, at least six—including those banned for use in children's products—are used in vinyl, the predominant plastic in cars.
Avoid it: Damp-mop and vacuum your car frequently to cut down on dust, which is where phthalates wind up after they migrate out of plastics. If you're in the market for a new car, consider a Honda; the automaker announced in 2011 that it's phasing out the use of PVC vinyl in its cars.