Phthalates are an insidious group of chemicals that pose very real heath risks for most people, yet they are almost impossible to avoid in modern society.  Armed with a little knowledge, however, you can increase your odds of avoiding these chemicals, boosting your chances of living a healthy life.

For the last several years, phthalates have been making an impression on the public consciousness, as people become more aware of their pervasive use in all corners of society.  These chemicals are used to make plastics flexible, as well as to preserve fragrances and help lotions penetrate the skin. Found in everything from cosmetics to toys (along with electronics and a wide array of household products), phthalates are utilized in so many places that avoiding them can begin to feel like an ongoing exercise in futility.

Roughly a billion pounds of these chemicals are created and utilized each year, as the Huffington Post points out.  Frighteningly, 95 percent of people have measurable levels of phthalates in their urine, as they are easily absorbed by the human body.  These chemicals can be unknowingly ingested and inhaled, or even absorbed through the skin when used in cosmetics.  In just one example of how pervasive they are in our civilization, phthalates are often found in dairy products, as they can leech into raw milk from plastic tubing.  Some of these chemicals can be easily absorbed by fat, so they are also ubiquitous in meats and cheeses (though it isn't entirely clear what the original vector of contamination is), and you can even find them in fruits and vegetables, where they are deposited by pesticides.
Knowing that we are all regularly exposed to phthalates can be terrifying in its own right, but the concept becomes even more frightening when the full range of effects associated with them is understood.  These chemicals are part of a broader group known as endocrine disruptors, responsible for literally mimicking and disrupting the human body's hormones. As a Frontline special explained, these chemicals are directly interfering with the body's ability to transmit messages from the brain.

"Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the body coordinating complex processes like growth, metabolism, and fertility. They can influence the function of the immune system, and even alter behavior...In response to a signal from the brain, hormones are secreted directly into the blood by the glands that produce and store them. These glands make up what is known as the endocrine system. Chemicals that interfere with the function of hormones are therefore known as endocrine disruptors."

Many people are exposed to these chemicals literally from the time they are in the womb, and they have been shown to have a wide range of negative effects.  Birth defects have been linked to phthalates (which can be passed across the placenta in utero), as have reproductive issues. Premature or abnormal sexual development, along with insulin resistance, have also been linked to them.

While the situation appears to be admittedly bleak, there are steps you can take to mitigate your future exposure to phthalates. First and foremost, avoid plastics as much as possible (though that is admittedly not easy).

  • Invest in a water filter - carbon filters can cut down on phthalates, which make their way into drinking water either through the treatment process or from pipes.
  • Eat organic produce, meat, and milk - Certified organic produce doesn't make use of the pesticides and sewage sludge that traditionally provide a vector for chemicals to impact agriculture.
  • Seek out proper plastics - Recycling codes 3, 6 and 7 are more likely to contain these chemicals
  • Avoid fragrances whenever possible - New car smell? Phthalates. As are many perfumes and air fresheners. Avoid anything with synthetic fragrance, and seek out products that use natural essential oils instead.
  • Vote with your dollars - We've talked about investing in green companies before on the Green Conscience blog, but in the case of phthalates and other chemicals, money makes a difference.  Some manufacturers have taken their own initiative to remove these chemicals from their products.  If you are so inclined, make sure your business goes to them (and not their competitors) and you'll naturally be pressing for the changes you want to see in the world.
Phthalates and their ilk potentially represent one of the gravest challenges of the modern industrial world. Unfortunately, it may be almost impossible for most of us to avoid them fully, but with a little extra care in your choices as a consumer, you can banish the majority of phthalates from your everyday life, and make a meaningful change in your health.

[Images: Dsw4 - Own Work via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0

               Zitona via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 ]



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