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A Brief Chat About Phthalates

What is a phthalate, and are phthalates safe?

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Phthalates are the chemicals that make rubber duckies soft and squishy.

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What are phthalates, and how the heck do you pronounce it?

A phthalate -- pronounced THAL-ate -- is a chemical compound found in many ordinary plastics. There are several different kinds of phthalates, but all of them are used to make plastic softer and more flexible. It's the phthalates in white PVC pipes that allow them to bend so easily, and phthalates make rubber duckies more squishy.

Phthalates sound like a very useful chemical compound, and a true friend to mankind.

Phthalates are useful, and they're found in thousands of products -- in fact, you're probably within reaching distance of some kind of phthalate right now. Manufacturers put phthalates in plastic bottles, cosmetics, pharmaceutical pill coatings, perfume, children's toys, shampoo, body lotions, shower curtains, automotive parts like dashboards, hairspray, wood finishers, nail polish, tools -- even sex toys have phthalates in them.

How did we ever survive without them?

You may soon find out -- several states have banned products containing phthalates, and they are currently banned from children's toys and some other products. The European Union placed a ban on them several years ago, and some retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys R Us stopped selling toys with phthalates in 2009.

They can have my rubber duckie when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but a large and growing body of scientific evidence finds that phthalates are endocrine disruptors, i.e., they mimic the hormones found in humans and animals, in particular the female hormone estrogen. It's a serious problem for a developing fetus; by mimicking estrogen, phthalates have been accused of causing birth defects, especially among males. (Bisphenol A, or BPA is another endocrine disruptor that's often added to plastics.)

Birth defects? From ordinary plastics?

Yes -- problems like undescended testicles, deformed penises (hypospadia) and other genital deformities have been associated with phthalates. The problem, some scientists believe, occur when a male fetus is exposed to high levels of phthalates in the womb. CBS News reported that hypospadias were once found in about one of every 300 male infants -- but now a figure of one out of 100 may be more accurate. And a handful of researchers think phthalates may be responsible for early onset of puberty among girls as young as 8 years old.

Sounds scary -- what's the industry doing about phthalates?

Some manufacturers are limiting -- or eliminating -- their use of phthalates. But others insist there's no hard proof that phthalates are causing any sort of problems, and to a degree they're right: rigorous scientific research into the long-term effects of phthalate exposure on humans hasn't been done, and the EPA, the FDA and other regulatory bodies have largely taken an "innocent until proven guilty" posture on phthalates.

What can ordinary consumers like me do about phthalates?

Because phthalates are found in many bath and beauty products, some health advocates advise limiting your use of lotions, sunscreens, perfumes and other products -- unless they say "phthalate free" on the label. Also, avoid exposure to all new plastics like shower curtains, paints, carpets and anything with that "new car smell." This advice may be especially important for women of child-bearing age. If you're really concerned, support lawmakers who are demanding that the EPA strengthen the mandate of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or "Tosca") to include phthalates, BPA and other dangerous chemical compounds.
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