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A very common endocrine disruptor and carcinogen

Phthalates are man-made plasticizers invented about a hundred years ago, and are now ubiquitous environmental contaminants. This means that we are exposed to phthalates pretty much constantly.

Exposure to phthalates is a threat to public health and is associated with allergies, obesity, cancer, among other disease.

There are various forms of phthalates, differing in their effect on human health. Phthalates subtypes DEHP, DBP, BBP, DINP, DIDP and DnOP are banned or restricted from children's toy or child care article in the US and the EU.

Routes of exposure

Phthalates are used in a wide range of industrial applications such as plasticizers in flexible vinyl products (flooring, wall coverings, toys, food containers and medical supplies), in personal care products (nail polish, deodorants, shampoos, conditioners and perfumes) and in solvents. Phthalates are used in the food industry as well- manufacturers had replaced expensive natural emulsifiers with di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) in numerous food and drinks.

Health effects

Phthalates are considered estrogenic endocrine disruptors, and recent research has suggested that they may act as a risk factor for estrogen-dependent diseases, as well as cancer.

Breast cancer risk has been differentially associated with urinary levels of some phthalate metabolites. Animal studies show phthalates cause liver injury and reproductive and developmental toxicity.

Other studies have also shown that phthalates are related to several health problems in women, such as endometriosis, uterine leiomyomata, decrease in thyroid hormone levels, changes in body mass index and waist circumference, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Other adverse effects of phthalates include irritation and allergic reaction such as asthma and contact dermatitis.

Phthalates, epigenetics and asthma

Epidemiological studies suggested an association between exposure to phthalates and increased prevalence of asthma or wheezing. Pulmonary physiological data also show that phthalates may promote and aggravate allergic asthma.

A certain kind of phthalate, DEHP, promotes a deviation of the Th2 immune response, which results in allergy. It does so by modulating (IL-4) and immunoglobulin E (IgE) production, as well as suppressing expression of immune system genes IFN-α and IFN-β.  It seems that DEHP, as other endocrine disruptors, modifies epigenetic marks on these genes. The resulting lower methylation levels of the TNFα gene doubles the risk of asthma in children.

How to reduce the risk from exposure to phthalates

The following precautions should help in reducing a genetic sensitivity to phthalates.

Phthalate is widely used in cosmetic products such as make-up, hair dye, and hair mousse. The frequent use of these cosmetic products leads to a higher internal burden due to absorption through the skin. Check the EWG's Skin Deep Database to help you figure out where these harmful chemicals may be hiding.


Choose natural or fragrance-free cosmetics and cleaning products. Look for wording like: "made with only essential oils" or "non-synthetic fragrance." These will not contain phthalates. Consider purchasing items that are fragrance-free. Soap bars, hand soap, body wash and lotions can be purchased without any fragrance.

Frequently enjoying chewing gum also showed a correlation with phhtalate concentration in urine. The gum itself might contain phthalates. It is also conceivable that plasticizers could pass into the chewing gum from the packaging. In a study on Swedish mother-child couples, mothers who consumed chewing gum several times a week also showed higher phthalate levels. High consumption of chewing gum was related to higher phthalate levels in mothers in another large European study (the DEMOCOPHES study).

Significantly higher phthalates concentrations are found in the urine of people who drink more frequently from plastic PET bottles. Try to use glass bottles and containers. Do not microwave or heat-up your food in plastic. There is some evidence that freezing in plastic may promote leaching into the food or water.
When using plastic containers, look for the little triangle label marking the plastic type. It's typically listed on the bottom of plastic water bottles. Avoid using bottles listed with the numbers 3, 6, or 7 listed. Plastic container or bottle does not contain any BPA or phthalates if labeled 2, 4, or 5.
Baby bottles should be phathalate and BPA free. Glass bottles are the safest. Use silicone bottle nipples over plastic and latex nipples that may contain phthalate. 

In interior rooms, there are usually numerous phthalate-containing materials which can release phthalates into both the air in the room and into house dust. Several studies have addressed the effects on lung function and inflammatory effects on the respiratory tract caused by the inhalation of phthalates. It is important to keep the rooms well ventilated, allowing fresh air in. Vacuum often to get rid of phthalates in dust.
In food, phthalates can be found more often in fats, such as meat and high-fat dairy products. Poultry skin was found especially high in phthalates.

A water filtration device should be able to remove most phthalates from your drinking water. However, some phthalates are only removed through nano-filtration. 

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