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Phthalates are a widely used class of chemicals, with over 1 billion pounds of these chemicals being used every year worldwide. They are used in a variety of applications and their health effects can also vary widely. Phthalates are commonly combined with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to make flexible plastic, such as IV bags and tubing, shower curtains, children’s toys, vinyl flooring, and in automobile interiors (phthalates are responsible for the new-car smell). They are also added to many fragrances to help maintain a consistent scent across the lifespan of the product. The same characteristics that make phthalates so useful in softening plastic also make it very easy for these chemicals to leach out of products and into the home, workplace, and environment.

Health Effects

Males appear to be the most susceptible to the effects of phthalate exposures. Phthalates have been linked to decreased sperm counts and lower testosterone levels in men and males infants exposed in-utero have higher rates of reproductive tract abnormalities. Phthlatates have also been linked to reduced fertility in women, obesity, preterm birth, and low birth weight.

To review a compendium of low dose exposure studies of phthalates across the span of fetal development go to Critical Windows of Development by The Endocrine Disruptor Exchange (TEDX).

Nurses as Advocates

Nurses have been strong advocates for decreasing exposures to phthalates in the healthcare setting. Read Nurses: Taking Precautionary Action on a Pediatric Environmental Exposure: DEHP.

How to avoid exposures

(From Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families):

  1. Skip the fragrance when choosing cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, detergents, and air fresheners. Manufacturers aren’t required to list phthalates on the label, but any item listed as “fragrance” is often a chemical mixture that can contain phthalates.
  2. Avoid buying plastics that may be treated with phthalates, including vinyl toys, shower curtains, and gloves. Look out for “PVC,” “V” or the “3” recycling code on the item or its packaging.
  3. If you have vinyl flooring in your home, damp mop regularly since phthalates bind to dust on the floor. Direct sunlight on vinyl tiles causes them to release phthalates more quickly, so put lower blinds on windows that shine directly on flooring.